Exploring Run For North Adams Mayor, LaForest Faces Scrutiny For Personal Conduct | WAMC

Exploring Run For North Adams Mayor, LaForest Faces Scrutiny For Personal Conduct

Mar 2, 2021

An exchange in a North Adams, Massachusetts community Facebook page has led to allegations of misconduct against city council vice president and likely mayoral candidate Jason LaForest.

Emily Bryant first posted about her experience with LaForest on the North Adams Chat page in late February. With Mayor Tom Bernard not seeking a third term, LaForest says he plans to mount a campaign.

In 2019, Bryant says she was struggling with postpartum depression after the birth of her son. Coupled with her post-traumatic stress disorder and complications around the birth itself, it was an overwhelming time.

“It was just too much," she told WAMC. "So I had to, like, have my in-laws take over. And I was just- And they had to obviously let the organization that we were working with my son know that, hey, she's not here right now. She's getting she's getting the help she needs.”

She alleges that LaForest - himself a nurse - found out about her struggles through his partner, who knew about the situation through her healthcare job, and was shocked to hear that he had told a mutual friend about what she was going through.

“He was basically trying to warn people, saying that I have serious issues and alluding to him thinking, like, that I'm crazy," said Bryant. "And that like, that really bothered me. Because obviously, everyone has their own struggles in life, nobody's perfect. And then on top of that, as soon after I found this out and I was kind of processing that, he goes and hits on me in Facebook Messenger.”

In a screenshot obtained by WAMC, LaForest responded to a post of Bryant’s on Facebook with three “hands up” emojis and the hashtag “hottie.”

“I told him, Hey, like, I don't appreciate the way you're speaking about me in the community, you have no right to know this," said Bryant. "And also do not contact me ever again. You know, mind you, I'm married. So I don't really want the unsolicited advances. I had an opportunity to speak out about it before, but mind you, I had just had a death in the family, I was dealing with so much more than just his misconduct and his invasion of my privacy. So I didn't really want to speak out about it. I wasn't ready. And then when I found out he was running for mayor, I felt I needed to, because I feel like people need to know who they're voting for.”

That led her to post about the situation in North Adams Chat, a community page with around 6,700 members.

Bryant’s comment was divisive even among administrators of the page.

“The reaction within the administrators was like a split," said North Adams Chat administrator Bonnie Sunn. "Some of us wanted to keep it, some of us wanted to get rid of it, thought it was too dangerous. And we went back and forth. It was deleted, and then replaced, deleted and replaced.”

According to Sunn and other administrators, LaForest’s reaction was unambiguous: he allegedly brought up legal reprisals against Bryant and in a message obtained by WAMC News refers to the situation as “an issue of liability.” Sunn posted that he was threatening to sue the page in a thread about the situation made on February 26th that now has around 200 comments.

In another message obtained by WAMC, LaForest says he hopes Bryant knows “she could get sued for that,” and describes the motivation behind the post to be “an opportunistic and silly way to get back at [him]” after he “briefly dated” a friend of hers.

“I don't say that we were a, you know, a solid relationship," said Stefani Forrest. "We saw each other over summer was like a summer fling, we got to know each other a little bit.”

Forrest is that friend.

“So I feel like it was a bit of a game in some aspects," she told WAMC. "But to me, it just seems like there's no respect for any of the women that he- You know, he's going around town parading me in front of other people, and yet going to, you know, events with another woman who is trying to give him another chance.”

Forrest confirmed to WAMC that LaForest told her about Bryant’s mental and emotional health situation in 2019.

She says she got to understand how LaForest perceived women over the course of their relationship, saying he objectifies them.

Forrest says that seeing LaForest’s reaction to Bryant’s post on North Adams Chat as well as his burgeoning bid for mayor upset her.

“To have somebody who goes around and disrespects people at like, a basic level like that- It just doesn't fit well," she told WAMC. "The character doesn't fit well for somebody who's supposed to be in, you know, in a position of power like that. Like, what is he going to do when he gets more power like that? And you’ve already seen online that he's already hushing people. And he's just a city councilor. And so that is worrisome.”

She says she understands that she may be perceived as a jilted ex-lover, but she isn’t concerned.

“To be honest with you, I could care less," said Forrest. "He, when we had stopped talking to each other, I actually had sent him home to his to his ex-girlfriend. And because I just felt that was the right thing to do. I'm like, Is this where you want to be? Go. I'm not that type of person is standing in the way of something that could potentially be a life partner, and I’m just- I know what that feels like.”

“He thinks that this is, like, revenge tactic from failed fling, which, to me working in Human Services world, like, that is a red flag for me," Fellow North Adams city councilor Jessica Sweeney tells WAMC. "I follow and pay attention to and research a lot of women's issues and I'm struggling, I'm struggling to understand his perspective.”

She attempted to broker a mediated conversation between LaForest and Bryant.

“But I do know, and firmly believe that when a woman receives a message or an unwanted advance from a man, whether or not that intention was in good faith is irrelevant. If it is received and negatively, is negative," said Sweeney. "And so he could have had an opportunity to apologize for that.”

But she says LaForest turned down that overture.

“The response to that was very much like no, I'm not gonna, you know, I don't have any other choice but to go to lawyers, like, this is defamation, libel and XY and Z," said Sweeney. "And I, you know, I sort of said, I was like, I just don't think that's true, I really think that she would be very open to hearing you apologize for that text.”

Now she feels like the situation is going down a dark path.

“A local chat room, which has the right to talk about anything they want, is being threatened with lawyers," said the city councilor. "And I find that incredibly abusive and oppressive overall.”

Later, Sweeney told WAMC that LaForest approached her again about the proposed apology meeting after he was asked for comment on the story by WAMC to tell her that he had been advised against having the meeting. LaForest initially declined to comment.

Concerns about LaForest’s personal conduct have already directly impacted another effort he made to secure more power in North Adams – when he tried to become city council president at the beginning of the current term in 2020.

“That's when the situation when, you know, he was seeing some different women, and it was, again, putting the council in an uncomfortable situation. So it did sort of weigh on us when it came to ethics, and of how someone is, and you have to think of someone can be like that with individuals that are close to them, how would they be, you know, in a higher position with more power,"said city councilor Keith Bona. “You know, that was, I think, why we changed that vote of what Jason was going to be for president at the last moment. And you know, that would be a concern. I think some people feel when politicians get more power behind them, you know, they use that advantage to against other people, for whatever for work for, for relationships, and tell so that is a concern. I mean, you're seeing it right now, you know, with national level politics, so it goes from small towns all the way up.”

At the time, Bona offered WAMC a bevy of other reasons as to why LaForest was ultimately not chosen for council president.

For her part, Bryant says she spoke up because she’s concerned that the community doesn’t know enough about the man who’s discussed becoming the city’s next mayor.

“The takeaway from this all is basically what I want people to know, is that he is already- So he's the vice president of the city council," she told WAMC. "He's already abusing his power. If we were to elect him mayor, he will continue to gain more power. And I'm afraid that the more power that he gains, he would also abuse. And the fact that he can't hold himself accountable for these actions is very problematic for me.”

LaForest issued a press release Tuesday afternoon about his message to Bryant, acknowledging that he had messaged her: “While the sole intent of this message was one of encouragement and support, it was obviously perceived otherwise, and I wish to extend my sincere apology to her.”

He declined to comment on the rest of the story.