WPRO-AM talk-radio host John DePetro has been shown to be factually challenged when he makes statements about others. His record with PolitiFact Rhode Island is two False rulings and two Pants on Fire rulings. So the irony didn't escape us when DePetro wrote to us on Jan. 2 to complain that a group was telling a lie about him.
At issue is a petition on Change.org that seeks his removal. It had 6,659 "signatures" as of 2:15 p.m. on Jan. 2. (Supporters are asked to give their names and addresses and click on a "Sign" button, but only the names of commenters are shown on the site.)
The petition comes from For Our Daughters RI, a union-backed group created after DePetro, a harsh critic of unions, called union protesters "parasites," "cockroaches," "hags" and "whores." The protesters had been picketing a fundraiser for Rhode Island General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, then an unannounced candidate for governor, accusing her of being a "crook" who "cooked the books" to build support for the overhaul of the state pension system.
The petition says DePetro has made other hateful statements against women and "earlier this year, he was accused of sexually assaulting a female co-worker." The petition started circulating in November 2013.
DePetro has taken issue with most of the allegations. We were interested in the sexual-assault claim because it was news to us.
"I have never been accused of 'sexual assault,' that is a complete lie," he said in his email. "In July of 2012, I was accused of sexual harassment, but that is far different than 'sexual assault.'"
A sexual harassment civil suit was indeed filed against him in 2012, not 2013, as the petition says. We read the complaint. It does not mention sexual assault, a criminal charge that can put someone in prison.
In the filing, a former coworker accused DePetro of allegedly making sexual advances to her, showing her images of women that he said he was attracted to, and ultimately asking her if she would engage in group sex with him. DePetro has denied the allegations.
(WPRO officials were also named in the suit. DePetro's supervisor was accused of not properly acting against the alleged infractions. However, there is no record in Superior Court that, in the 15 months since the suit was filed, any of the defendants have been officially notified that they're being sued.)
We called Maureen Martin, chairwoman of For Our Daughters RI, to ask about the sexual-assault allegation. Martin is also political activities director of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, a labor union.
Martin confirmed that the allegation in the petition referred to the 2012 sexual harassment suit. She asked to get back to us.
By that night, the petition had been altered. The year had been changed to 2012. As of 2 p.m. Friday, the total was 6,671.
However, the allegation of sexual assault was not modified.
In a statement emailed that evening, Martin said that in the harassment complaint, DePetro's accuser "alleges that Mr. DePetro made multiple 'sexual advances' toward her. These advances were unwelcome and 'inappropriate,' the complaint contends."
"The United States Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women defines sexual assault, in part, as: 'any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,'" Martin said. "We believe the alleged, unwelcome 'sexual advances' referenced in the aforementioned court filing fall under the classification of 'behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.'"
We checked the Justice Department's definition. The other half of the definition, which Martin did not quote, says: "Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape." Sexual harassment is not mentioned.
For Our Daughters RI, in its petition calling for the removal of talk-radio host John DePetro, said, "Earlier this year, he was accused of sexually assaulting a female co-worker."
DePetro was accused of sexual harassment in a lawsuit filed in 2012, not 2013. The suit, which has laid dormant according to court records, never alleges sexual assault.
Both sexual harassment and sexual assault are serious allegations. But the former is a civil matter and the latter can send you to prison, and relegate an ex-convict to a life of a registered sex offender.
We would expect a group devoted to protecting women to know the difference. Yet For Our Daughters RI is standing by its allegation, selectively quoting from a federal definition of sexual assault and neglecting the fact that the definition does not include sexual harassment.
We rate its statement Pants on Fire!
(With research by Providence Journal reporter Katie Mulvaney. If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)