By Jarret Liotta

WESTPORT — Louis D’Onofrio, a Westport parent and — until last month — an employee at the Westport-Weston Health District, said his frustrations with that department and its leader prompted him to throw his hat into this year’s selectman race.

D’Onofrio is running alongside returning first selectman candidate T.J. Elgin, who lost the race in 2017 by a wide margin as an independent candidate.

“I had no intention to run for office,” D’Onofrio said, but following frustration with the town’s response to issues at the WWHD that he said were reported to WWHD board members and First Selectman Jim Marpe, he felt he had to take action.

Louis D’Onofrio, a Westport parent and former WWHD employee, is running for second selectman. (Contributed Photo)

D’Onofrio brought a lawsuit against the WWHD and its executive director, Mark Cooper, on Aug. 2, claiming intolerable conditions relating to the work environment and related actions by Cooper, including the possible mismanagement of funds.

Mark Cooper, executive director of the WWHD, at last Friday’s board meeting. (Photo by Jarret Liotta)

“Marpe and the health department board allowed Mark to be the director, treasurer, secretary, and they placed him in charge of his own investigation regarding how he misplaced over $76,000,” he said.

“There will be no comments whatsoever,” Cooper said before a special meeting of the WWHD board of directors on Friday afternoon, noting that if board members broached the issue it would be discussed in executive session.

“I have no comment,” said Chair Otis Crawford. “You’ll have to talk to our lawyer.”

Otis Crawford, chair of the WWHD board, at last Friday’s special meeting. (Photo by Jarret Liotta)

Friday’s agenda had an executive session scheduled “to discuss personnel,” but no details were available.

While serving two years as director of community health beginning in April 2019, D’Onofrio made multiple complaints about rodent droppings in the office and clinic area.

When his complaints weren’t acted upon, his suit alleges, he issued a complaint with the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency, which did an inspection and found several issues that needed to be addressed, including “multiple health and/or safety violations.”

In April 2021, D’Onofrio’s suit said he met with the Westport Police Department regarding “concerns about possible financial mismanagement of district funds in the approximate amount of $76,000 of ‘unclassified’ medical services.”

On April 29, 2021, he said he also expressed concern to Crawford about financial mismanagement and other health and safety concerns.

“On or about May 5, 2021, Cooper initiated an investigation into a fictitious vaccine matter,” the suit claims, blaming D’Onofrio for unaccounted for vaccine doses.

Other incidents allegedly followed in which Cooper interfered with D’Onofrio’s work and rescinded on a bonus.

D’Onofrio resigned on June 16, 2021.

“I was mistreated, disrespected, and punished by Mark Cooper for reporting missing funds and poor health conditions,” he said. “I took legal action against Mark because his actions need to stop and the town needs to step in.”

D’Onofrio said that because of a fear of retaliation from Cooper others are afraid to step forward.

The WWHD board meets last Friday, including, from right, members Catherine Revzon, Paul Shaum, Executive Director Mark Cooper, and Chair Otis Crawford. (Photo by Jarret Liotta)

He also stressed the immensity of the rodent problem at the WWHD—the former site of the Bayberry Kindergarten in the 1960s and 1970s, prior to which it served as barracks for military personnel who worked on the Nike Missile operations.

“We are talking about years of stagnant feces in boxes, storage, desk draws, cabinets, and active mice running around at a location titled Health Department,” D’Onofrio said, emphasizing that Cooper has ignored it for years.

In terms of his candidacy, he explained that the town’s failure to address something so obvious as the health and safety issues at the WWHD indicates there are potentially even more serious and pressing issues being neglected.

“I am a parent of two small children and I was part of the re-open schools community in town,” he said. “I know how parents feel about this upcoming school year and the fears associated with the unknown.”

“I want us to be better prepared in this town for whatever health concerns arise in the upcoming years, and as the only person with a medical background I feel I fit the bill at this time,” D’Onofrio said.

While Elgin did not respond to queries for this article, D’Onofrio said they met after Elgin had expressed interest in his story and started an online petition to have Cooper removed from office.

Elgin, who also had an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Congress last year, runs Full Moon Brewing LLC.

In December, 2019, allegedly mistaken for a burglar, Elgin was arrested outside his home in Westport in a controversial encounter with police, which he said at the time was politically motivated. He was charged with interfering with an officer.

“We met and I agreed that we need better for our town,” D’Onofrio said. “I am now running for second selectman because you sometimes cannot ask for change. You need to be the change.”