Senate Transportation Commitee

Consultant Steven Gayle, lower left, is seen with the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday. Comments by Gayle during a break in the hearing resulted in the footage being taken down, edited and reposted on Thursday. 

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Readers: This story was updated at 3 p.m. Friday to correct the timeline of how Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn learned of the incident. 

A consultant to the Vermont Agency of Transportation who used a racist epithet during a break in testimony during a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday has been fired, state Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint said Thursday.

“This language is abhorrent and will not be tolerated. The legislature must be a venue that welcomes and supports the participation of all, and language that traumatizes people of color cannot stand,” Balint said.

The link to the Senate Transportation Committee hearing was not available Thursday morning. It returned to the committee’s YouTube channel Thursday afternoon with the comments uttered by consultant Steven Gayle edited out.

Carolyn Wesley, Balint’s chief of staff, said the Legislature’s information technology department was working to remove and preserve the offending section of footage.

Wednesday’s Senate Transportation Committee agenda listed Gayle, a consultant for Resource Systems Group, a White River Junction-based firm, as a witness regarding a study on direct-to-consumer motor vehicle sales.

VTDigger.org first reported that Gayle, after being welcomed into the virtual meeting room, twice used an offensive racial slur as he waited for the committee to return from break.

In a video uploaded by VTDigger and later provided by the Legislature to the Bennington Banner and Brattleboro Reformer, Gayle is at first cordial with the committee executive assistant as he’s informed testimony will resume in 10 minutes. But he is later seen and heard hissing through clinched teeth, “We arrested every n-----.”

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Lawmakers returned to the hearing shortly afterwards and it continued, with Senators apparently unaware of what Gayle had said.

VTDigger.org reported that Gayle, in an email, said his comments were the result of “an outburst while reading a news report, of course not realizing Zoom was on.” He said he was “in counseling” for an unspecified mental health issue.

Balint, D-Windham, acted quickly Thursday morning to address the issue.

“Late last night it came to my attention that during a break in the Senate Transportation Committee’s morning meeting, a witness could be seen and heard uttering racial epithets,” Balint said in a prepared statement issued Thursday morning.

“My understanding is that all committee members and staff were away from their computers at the time and that no one became aware of the issue until much later. Senator [Richard] Mazza, chair, and Senator [Andrew] Perchlik, vice chair, were shocked and dismayed when they learned what had happened.”

Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn had learned of the problem from AOT Policy, Planning, and Intermodal Development Director Michele Boomhower at 6:32 a.m. Thursday, and Balint called Flynn shortly before 8 a.m., VTrans spokesperson Amy Tatko said Thursday. Flynn subsequently contacted Resource Systems Group, Inc. CEO Steve Lawe, Gayle’s employer, about two hours later.

“The Agency of Transportation and the State of Vermont will not tolerate racist conduct by consultants engaged by the State,” Tatko said Thursday. “The Secretary of Transportation contacted the CEO of the company this morning, upon learning of this incident. The CEO has informed the Secretary that the company terminated Steven Gayle at 9:35 a.m. this morning.”

Hearings held by the House and Senate’s standing committees are conducted over the Zoom online conferencing platform and are streamed and archived on the YouTube video platform. During breaks, some committees leave the live stream on, while others mute the audio and put up a static panel advising viewers that the hearing will return shortly.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.