- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
More questions surfaced late last week about how the Greater Burlington YMCA handled staff and patrons’ concerns about Democrat Sen. Ed Flanagan, a Chittenden County state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor.
Two weeks ago, a YMCA member filed a formal complaint alleging that Flanagan was seen masturbating in the Men’s Wellness Center, an adults-only area of the facility. Flanagan, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 2005 car accident, denied the accusation, but later apologized if any of his behavior was construed as offensive.
In last week’s “Fair Game” column, Shay Totten reported that the incident wasn’t the first of its kind. But YMCA President and CEO Mary Burns said she knew that Flanagan had had difficulties on the treadmill, but that she was “unaware of the other incidents” Totten described in his column.
Burns said the same thing to other members of the media, including the Burlington Free Press. In the Free Press article, “Burns said she was aware only that Flanagan’s safety on exercise equipment had been called into question.”
But Alex Nief, who worked as the Y’s member services evening supervisor from March 2008 until May 2009, disputes Burns’ description of the events.
Last week, Nief provided Seven Days with copies of two emails he sent to Burns and other YMCA managers back in March and April. Those emails indicate that Y management knew about other troubling and inappropriate behavior by Flanagan several months before the formal complaint that was filed last week by YMCA member Tiki Archambeau.
In the first email, dated March 29, 2009, Nief reported that a patron — other than Archambeau — had seen Flanagan “acting strangely” in the men’s wellness center. In that same email, Nief also told his managers that this patron, and another man, had witnessed Flanagan masturbating in the men’s sauna.
“To avoid making an embarrassing scene, I did not address the masturbation or ask [Flanagan] to leave,” Nief wrote to his bosses in March. Instead, Nief wrote, he monitored Flanagan’s behavior to “make sure he was acting appropriately....
“Since Ed is a state senator, I wanted to handle this as carefully as possible to avoid doing any harm to his reputation,” Nief added. “In my opinion, from what I and others have witnessed, Ed should have his membership terminated immediately. He will get hurt using our equipment on his own and bring harm to his and the YMCA’s reputation if he is charged with any crimes related to his behavior.”
In the second email, dated April 5, 2009, Nief notified Jan Riordan, vice president of membership and programs, that an anonymous patron had reported Flanagan fell off a bench in the sauna. Later that day, according to the email, Y staffers had to break into a locker because Flanagan had lost his key. Subsequently, Flanagan’s clothes were found in plain sight in another locker.
When reached on Friday, Burns reiterated what she’s told other members of the press: “It’s our practice to keep these matters with our members. We deal with them internally. So, I’m dealing with this internally.”
Pressed about the discrepancy between her statements to Totten and Nief’s internal correspondences, Burns declined to elaborate: “I’ve said everything that I’m going to say at this point. I really don’t have anything to add.”
For his part, Nief said he made the emails public because he was angry about the way the YMCA handled this incident, and by Burns’ statements in the press. As he put it, “My frustration is less with what’s going on in Ed Flanagan’s life. It’s more that the Y completely ignored this issue.”
In May, a Seven Days cover story raised questions about Flanagan’s unusual behavior during the legislative session. At the time, few Statehouse regulars — and none of his Senate colleagues — were willing to speak candidly and on the record about their concerns for him. If anything, several suggested that Flanagan was as sharp as ever.
But, as medical experts point out, the complexities of a traumatic brain injury can make it difficult for others to recognize its full effects, even in someone who, like Flanagan, appears to have made a full recovery.
Dr. Roger Knakal, a TBI expert at Fletcher Allen Health Care, wouldn’t comment on Flanagan’s condition or the allegations made against him. However, he noted that when he counsels TBI patients, “I will outline the fact that even though they may have recovered well today, they are still at risk of developing behavioral issues some six months or more after the injury.”
Those “behavioral issues” can include impulsiveness, forgetfulness, irritability and a lack of awareness of one’s environment. Another TBI expert, who asked not to be identified, said that inappropriate speech or behavior may be a sign that the patient’s medical or psychological condition has changed. In that case, he suggested the individual be reevaluated immediately.