DA, former Springfield mayor intervene in dispute between Easthampton club and veteran with service dog

Last modified: Friday, December 27, 2013
EASTHAMPTON — Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and former Springfield Mayor Michael Albano are helping mediate a dispute that arose when a Southampton veteran accused a staff member at the Pulaski Club of harassing him and kicking him out because of his service dog.

Sullivan and Albano plan a meeting with veteran Gary Houle Jr. and club vice president Scott Vishaway. Albano, a member of the Governor’s Council who operates a public affairs consulting company, said the meeting could be as early as Saturday.

“My intent is to help them shake hands and resolve the issue,” Albano said Friday. “I’ve been in situations like this before and they sometimes escalate. I hope to de-escalate it and reach a resolution.”

Though his letter to Vishaway Friday offered to “mediate a settlement of mutual satisfaction,” Albano said he did not mean a financial settlement.

Vishaway confirmed he was interested in meeting, Albano said, and Sullivan was planning to reach out to Houle Friday.

Houle on Friday declined to comment about any meeting until after a protest of the club that is scheduled to take place Sunday from noon to 2 p.m.

Albano said that after hearing news accounts of the dispute, he contacted Sullivan about setting up the meeting. “He’s made veteran issues a focus point of his administration and this clearly fits with that,” he said of Sullivan.

Vishaway has declined to comment to the Gazette, but the law firm Dunn & Phillips P.C., which has offices in Amherst, Springfield and Westfield, issued a statement Friday that it is representing Vishaway and the Pulaski Club in connection with the incident.

The 43-year-old Houle served with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and was injured in combat. He said he has hearing loss, a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. His bullmastiff, Princess, is trained to assist him as a hearing alert dog and to help him feel calm and safe, he said in an interview earlier this week.

Houle said he attempted to enter the club on Thanksgiving at about 2:30 p.m., but was confronted by a man he identified as Vishaway who demanded identification for the service dog and aggressively questioned him about the dog’s harness. Houle admitted he “snapped” and swore at Vishaway, and said he was told to leave.

He believes Vishaway violated federal law by questioning him and refusing to let him in.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, it is unlawful for staff at a business to prevent a service dog from entering or to ask for an identification card or training documentation, because service dogs are not required by federal law to be certified in any way.

A service dog is any dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Houle said he told Vishaway he did not need to produce documentation, but eventually showed him Princess’ identification card, which he bought from a company called the National Service Animal Registry.

Houle said his father, Gary Houle Sr. of Easthampton, has arranged the protest, which he expects will draw many local veterans. The group plans to meet in the parking lot of the former Sacred Heart of Jesus Church at noon and then march up and down Franklin Street and to the nearby Pulaski Club.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.