Updated, 1:53 p.m.: Comment from Attorney Amy Eppler-Epstein; clarification on Jalin Sead.
NORWALK, Conn. – Recent charges against a New Haven man who has filed a complaint of discrimination against the Norwalk Fire Department are not relevant to his complaint, according to his lawyer.
Novack Lazare was denied employment with the Fire Department last year after officials learned through an F.B.I. background check that Lazare is a convicted felon. Lazare filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) alleging that he was discriminated against because he is African American, later amending it to say he was discriminated against because of his record as a convict, according to Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr.
Waterbury Police arrested Lazare in September; Spahr in mid-October suggested that Lazare should withdraw his discrimination complaint because the arrest made it conclusively clear that “Lazare is not fit to be a firefighter.”
“Atty. Spahr’s repeated attempts to attack Mr. Lazare and his character and cloud the issues that are before the CHRO are wholly inappropriate,” Attorney Amy Eppler-Epstein of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association wrote to CHRO on Nov. 1.
Lazare has not replied to a Monday email from NancyOnNorwalk.
Eppler-Epstein, in a Friday email, wrote, “The basis of Mr. Lazare’s complaint is that the City of Norwalk and its Fire Department failed to follow the procedures required by law when a person has been granted a Certificate of Employability; such a certificate prohibits employers from issuing a blanket denial of employment based on criminal convictions, includes a presumption of rehabilitation, and requires an employer to do an assessment of the nature of the job requirements compared with the specifics of the conviction. None of this happened in Mr. Lazare’s case; and the failure to do so has a racially discriminatory impact.”
Then-Norwalk Branch NAACP member Jalin Sead criticized Norwalk a year ago for not hiring Lazare. On Monday, he said he was “deeply saddened” at the recent arrest but still feels people deserve a second chance.
Lazare said a year ago that he was upfront about being a convicted felon when he interviewed to become a Norwalk firefighter the previous spring. He was issued a conditional offer of employment but that offer was rescinded after the F.B.I. background check, four days before he was set to be fitted for a uniform.
Lazare said he’d already passed a background check.
Lazare’s convictions date to incidents in 2007 and 2008. Charges include assault on public safety personnel, assault, unlawful restraint first degree, violation of a protective order and threatening second degree. He was sentenced to 11 years, suspended after 5.5 years and five years probation, he said.
Lazare said a year ago that a public defender told him to take a plea deal.
Waterbury Police arrested Lazare on Sept. 24 and charged him with breach of peace second degree, interfering with an emergency call, assault third degree and strangulation third degree, all misdemeanors, according to the state judicial website.
A phone call to Waterbury Police seeking the details of the arrest was not returned.
The CHRO case is still open, CHRO Principal Attorney Charles Krich confirmed Wednesday, declining any further details.
“Under state law the Commission’s processing of a complaint remains confidential,” Krich wrote.
“Frankly, the CHRO is trying to sort this case out,” Spahr wrote to NancyOnNorwalk on Oct. 19, calling Lazare’s original complaint, which he filed himself to allege racial discrimination, as “obviously pretty lame” given the diversity of the Norwalk Fire Department’s 2016 new hires.
Norwalk hired eight firefighters, two African American men, one Hispanic man, one white woman and four white men.
The New Haven Legal Assistance Association is a nonprofit organization incorporated in 1964 to provide legal help for New Haven County residents who are unable to engage legal counsel, according to its website.
“I have challenged ‘merits’ of the claim as well as the jurisdiction of the CHRO to hear this,” Spahr said, explaining that it was never put into law that CHRO would have that power.
Spahr’s Oct.19 email to CHRO issued harsh criticism of Lazare, asserting that the offer of employment was rescinded last year because, “Lazare had a horrific criminal past including charges of assault of public safety/emergency medical personnel. His past also included acts of violence upon women. It was deemed that he was not fit to be a Norwalk Fire Fighter. We stand by that determination.”
On Oct. 23 he wrote to CHRO that Lazare would have been on probationary employment on Sept. 24 if he had been hired as a Norwalk firefighter, and would have been fired for his arrest.
“It would seem that his whole claim is, at this time, moot given the fact that he would not have been appointed, if appointed would have been terminated, and at this date clearly is not eligible to be appointed at any time in the future,” Spahr wrote.
“Any information that was not available to the decision makers at the time they rescinded their employment offer to Mr. Lazare is not relevant to the pending CHRO complaints,” Eppler-Epstein replied on Nov. 1. “…(We) find the continued onslaught of mud-slinging to be disturbing. We urge the CHRO to instruct Atty. Spahr to refrain from his continued incendiary emails.”
Norwalk Branch NAACP member Jalin Sead said a year ago that the Fire Commission had erred in not giving Lazare a second chance.
On Monday, he wrote:
“I am deeply saddened to hear about Novak’s recent run in with the law. I don’t want to rush to judgment, without knowing all of the facts. I will say that, I supported Mr. Lazare last year based on my belief in giving people a true Second Chance. I still believe that people deserve a second chance. But I do understand why the city made their decision. This is a tough one, I don’t know all the facts of the recent situation, but I do stand by what I said a year ago.”
Sead quoted Gov. Dannel Malloy when he signed the Second Chance Society Bill in 2015:
“By signing this legislation into law, we are making real, systematic change to our state’s crime fighting strategy. We can truly be tough on crime by being smart on crime. The cycle our system currently encourages – one of permanent punishment – hurts too many families and communities. When we should have been focusing on permanent reform, we focused on permanent punishment. For too long, we built modern jails instead of modern schools. Because this bill passed, Connecticut has taken a giant step into the future.”
Sead then quoted his own 2016 statement to the Fire Commission:
“Novak worked hard to pay for his mistakes, and has worked equally as hard to achieve his goal of becoming a Fire Fighter. Mr. Novak Lazare was hired by the Norwalk Fire Department, and set on the path to start the academy on August 25th 2016. For reasons that have not been explained to Mr. Lazare, Norwalk has rescinded their offer. By doing this, Norwalk has given Novak Lazare an indefinite sentence. Even though Mr. Lazare has served his time, and worked diligently to become a reformed citizen, the city of Norwalk, has said that he is still a convict, and he cannot achieve his dream of becoming a fire fighter.”
“If people get drawn back into the real world, get a job and make a living, studies show they’ll be less likely to go back to prison. Studies show that when people can’t find a job after being release from prison they are more likely to go back to jail. Now that we have the Second Chance Act we have to make the matter more pressing.
“I’m here for Novak, because I still believe he has the ability to do something great for the community, if not a firefighter in other ways. We must work to encourage our community to get better, even when they make mistakes.”