Victoria Laaber didn’t think she’d get the job.
Laaber, then 20, had no administrative experience when she answered an online ad seeking a city councillor’s assistant. It was September 2012, and she had just moved to Ottawa.
Before she knew it, she was working for Coun. Rick Chiarelli.
“At the beginning it was great,” Laaber told CBC News. She enjoyed dealing with community associations and constituents, but she soon discovered there were other aspects to the job.
“From there, it got a little weird in the sense of we went to bars, to strip clubs,” Laaber recalled. “The main purpose was to get information on individuals.”
According to Laaber, just a few months into her new job, Chiarelli started taking her to strip clubs — usually, Le Pigale in Gatineau, Que., though she once went to Bare Fax in Ottawa’s ByWard Market — to spy on another city councillor who was allegedly there.
Laaber said Chiarelli pressured her into wearing revealing clothing that he would often provide for her. All the while, said Laaber, she felt her job was at risk.
“That was a constant, consistent threat,” Laaber said. “The consistent threat was, I can fire you in a second, and no one would bat an eyelash.”
Laaber is one of six women who have come forward to share their experiences working for or being interviewed by Chiarelli since CBC first published the story of another woman who alleges the councillor asked her during a job interview if she would go braless to certain work events.
Two of the women, including Laaber, worked for Chiarelli, while the other four attended job interviews with him. All were in their 20s at the time. Their accounts contain several striking similarities.
Asked why they’re coming forward now, all six name the same two reasons: they want the woman who originally came forward and filed a formal complaint against Chiarelli to be believed, and they don’t want anyone else to experience what they say they went through.
“I felt incredibly guilty for not saying anything when I left, because I left three years ago,” Laaber told CBC. “But now … I’m just angry.”
Councillor ‘adamantly denies the allegations’
In a letter to CBC, Chiarelli’s lawyer, Bruce Sevigny, said the councillor “adamantly denies the allegations” made in this story. Sevigny said Chiarelli will “respond more substantively when his health permits.”
On Tuesday, Chiarelli issued a memo stating he was going to seek a formal leave of absence for an unspecified medical issue. The memo came one hour before the initial deadline CBC had given him to respond to this story.
On Wednesday, council voted to postpone a decision about Chiarelli’s request for a leave of absence after city clerk Rick O’Connor advised members the request was “premature.”
Sevigny also told CBC that he had taken “certain formal action” this week that he believes “should result in the discontinuation of any current formal complaints” against Chiarelli but has provided no further information.
CBC extended the deadline for response by 24 hours and asked for further details about that formal action, but none was provided.
Heels, short skirts, cleavage
Angelica Dixon worked for Chiarelli for a few months in early 2018. She remembers the councillor asking her during her job interview what she’d be OK wearing to work.
“He asked me if I would be willing to wear heels and short skirts and show cleavage,” Dixon told CBC. “I gave a kind of non-answer, like, ‘I don’t really have much cleavage to show.'”
She didn’t last long and said she found it frustrating to work for Chiarelli, who was rarely in the office. When he was around, Dixon said, he made highly inappropriate comments.
“In particular, he claimed to have seen nude photos of [a former employee],” Dixon said. CBC has verified with two other former employees that Chiarelli mentioned the existence of these photos.
On ‘assignment’ to strip club
Laaber also described Chiarelli’s fondness for skimpy clothing. She said the councillor would pressure her to wear revealing outfits when he sent her “on assignment” to the strip clubs.
He wouldn’t exactly pick out the outfit, she said, but might give her three options to choose from. The choices were always the same, she said: “Short skirts, short shorts, low-cut tops, see-through tops.”
Laaber called Chiarelli a “master manipulator” because he made it seem as though she wasn’t being coerced into wearing the revealing outfits. “It’s perceived as a choice,” she said.
A typical strip club “assignment” would start with Chiarelli picking Laaber up at her home, she said. On one occasion, when she wore a top he had given her, he told her “it would look better if there was no bra,” she said.
“The implication is, you don’t have a choice in the matter.”
She took her bra off in the car, she said.
When they arrived at the strip club, Laaber said Chiarelli would give her money for drinks. She’d sit in the club alone for hours. She said she never gleaned one ounce of information on anyone, and she refused to snare the councillor who she was allegedly sent to spy on.
Eventually, Chiarelli would drive her back home. By then, it would be the middle of the night. She’d have to return to the office by 9 a.m.
CBC has verified Laaber’s account of what happened during her four years working for Chiarelli with two former co-workers.
The last straw
Laaber said she went to strip clubs four or five times and to bars or post-event parties another dozen times, ostensibly to try to sign up volunteers for Chiarelli. At these events, too, Chiarelli would pressure her to wear revealing clothing, she said, and even bought her a couple of very short, low-cut dresses for that purpose.
One was black with a plunging neckline and lace from the chest down to the navel.
“So, it’s a dress that’s made to essentially not wear a bra,” Laaber said. “I had at one point worn a nude coloured one, and the councillor looked at me and said, ‘It looks better without a bra.'”
The incident that finally led her to quit occurred during the 2016 Ottawa International Animation Festival afterparty.
“He decided that I was wearing a short skirt, a see-through top and no bra,” Laaber said.
There are photos of her in the outfit, she said. “The fact that there are potentially pictures of me in that outfit out there is highly uncomfortable.”
Laaber said she understands why some people may question why she didn’t complain or quit sooner, but she said she didn’t know who to turn to.
“I didn’t realize how badly I was manipulated until relatively recently,” she told CBC.
She said she has had mental health issues over the years and that because she came from an abusive family situation, Chiarelli’s alleged behaviour seemed almost normal.
Job applicant shown nude photo
Caitlin Moore was offered an interview after meeting Chiarelli during one of his door-to-door canvasses in her Hadley Court neighbourhood in early 2014.
She said she met him at Starbucks in Bells Corners, where he showed her inappropriate pictures of women on his cellphone. One photo showed a woman with the “side of her shirt cut out, so you could see half of her breasts exposed,” Moore told CBC. “And he was like, ‘This is the kind of stuff I encourage the ladies working in my office to wear.'”
Moore said Chiarelli also showed her a photo of a naked woman whom he claimed had sent the picture in as a job application.
“This had this person’s face on it, and ethically, I really think that’s something that’s inappropriate,” said Moore, who now lives in Western Canada.
Three more women in their 20s approached CBC individually after reading the original story about the allegations against Chiarelli to share their interview experiences with the councillor.
CBC has agreed not to use the names of two of the women and to only use the first name of the third, because they worry they could have trouble finding employment in Ottawa if they are named.
All three women have provided documentation, either through Facebook messages or email exchanges, showing the interviews took place. CBC has corroborated their accounts with family and friends, whom they had previously told of their interview experiences.
Asked about stripping, ‘World Orgasm Day’
One woman said Chiarelli sent her a Facebook message in April 2018 when she was a student in Algonquin College’s public relations program, in which Chiarelli was involved as the local councillor.
She said she had never met him, so the offer of an interview came as a surprise. They arranged to meet at the Starbucks in the Chapters at Pinecrest Shopping Centre.
“I was super excited,” said the woman, who was 22 at the time. “I would love to work in media relations for such a powerful figure in the community.”
She said Chiarelli never asked about her qualifications for the job, only about her outside interests and hobbies. When she mentioned she had danced for 18 years, she said Chiarelli responded: “Oh, that must mean you’re flexible.”
According to the woman, the councillor then asked her: “Would you ever consider being a stripper? You’re flexible, and you have the body for it.”
The councillor somehow brought up something called “World Orgasm Day” during the interview, the woman recalled. She said she left the interview after about 45 minutes.
“I actually felt disgusting talking to him and cut it off,” she said.
‘A really creepy thing’
Nicola said she met Chiarelli while volunteering at a Canadian Film Institute event at city hall in September 2015. He mentioned that he might be looking to hire in his office, so she followed up with an email, and the two met at the Starbucks in the Lord Elgin Hotel at 7 p.m. on Sept. 4.
She said the interview went on for two hours.
“What really stands out for me is he was saying, ‘So the girls who work for me, they have to do things for me at all hours of the night.… I had to send someone to a strip club in the middle of the night at 3 a.m. to get information for me. Would you be able to do that?'”
Nicola, who was 26 at the time, said she was flabbergasted.
“Why does he need women to go on these sorts of private investigations for him? This is local politics,” she told CBC News. “When I left, I felt like, ‘Oh yeah, that was a really creepy thing.'”
Ploy to ‘recruit’ men
Another woman told CBC that four years ago, when she was 20, she served Chiarelli at the Service Ontario office in Westgate Mall, where she worked. About a week later, she said Chiarelli called the office to ask her if she wanted to interview for a job in his office.
The interview was at the Starbucks in Bells Corners on Robertson Road in March 2015.
During the interview, which she said lasted four hours, Chiarelli told her that he likes “his girls to wear revealing clothing, so it would be, like, a short skirt and a low, revealing top.” She said the councillor told her he could help choose the clothing and that she could text him photos of the outfits.
He also suggested that part of the job would be to go to bars and clubs, “dancing with guys and drinking and partying and trying to get the guys to think that they want to sleep with them,” in order to “recruit” men.
After the interview, the woman’s boyfriend, who had been waiting outside in the car for her, advised her to complain to someone. Now, the woman wishes she had come forward sooner.
“He’s a city councillor, so you just think, if I complain, am I going to screw myself in the end?” the woman asked.
A few days later, on March 17, 2015, the woman wrote Chiarelli an email, which the CBC has seen. In it, she tells Chiarelli that she was “not comfortable” with some aspects of the job.
Chiarelli responded that he “may have been a little overly dramatic and extreme on some of it,” but that he didn’t want her to “go into it naively.”
He offered to discuss the job further, but the woman said she never responded.