Published February 28. 2013 6:00PM Updated March 02. 2013 1:19PM
(This article was edited to add Hewett's exact comment according to an audiotape of the hearing.)
Hartford — State Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, was removed from his post as deputy speaker this week after making an inappropriate remark to a teenager testifying during a committee hearing.
"I want to personally apologize to the young lady for the comments that I made," Hewett said on Thursday. "I don't know her name or where she is from, but I want to personally apologize to her."
During a Feb. 20 Appropriations Committee hearing, a female 17-year-old ambassador for the Connecticut Science Center asked the committee to continue funding the center's ambassador program.
During her speech, she said the program helped her overcome her shyness and get over her fear of snakes.
"I am usually a very shy person, and now I am more outgoing," she told the committee. "I was able to teach those children about certain things like snakes that we have and the turtles that we have. ... I want to do something toward that, working with children when I get older."
Near the end of her speech, committee co-chairman state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, smiled at the girl and made a comment about how the teen was no longer shy.
Hewett, 56, recalled Thursday that he then pushed his microphone button to talk and said, "If you are shy, then I have a live snake under this desk."
According to an audiotape of the hearing, Hewett said: "If you're bashful I got a snake sitting under my desk here."
"What I meant to say was, if you are shy then I have an acre of land in the Everglades," he said Thursday.
Hewett, who is serving his fifth term as a state representative, said he took full responsibility for what happened and that he was not trying to shift responsibility to anyone else.
A spokesman for the Democratic caucus, Gabe Rosenberg, said that in reaction to the comment, Hewett has been stripped of his deputy speaker title. He will lose $6,446 from his salary, which means he will make the base legislative salary of $28,000, according to a legislative document.
And because of the incident, legislators who have not been through a sexual harassment training recently will have to take a refresher course, Rosenberg said. Freshman and sophomore legislators recently underwent training, he said.
Hewett also will have to meet with the female legislators of his caucus on Tuesday, the spokesman said.
State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said she wasn't there but heard the audio tape of the remark.
"I agree with the speaker's assessment of the tape," she said. "I found it disturbing, so I believe the speaker has resolved the situation to the best of his ability."
State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said every woman who has talked to her about it thought the remark was a "sexual innuendo."
"It is inappropriate to make any jokes and the use of the word 'snake' in that context ... I think it is disturbing," Urban said.
Members of the Appropriations Committee already had been talking in a more jovial tone before Hewett made his comment. After his comment, there was some laughter and a couple of legislators exchanged glances.
"When (House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden) listened to the audio and realized that the reference was pretty clear, I believe he did the difficult but the right thing," Urban said. "That young girl has to have a message sent to her that this is unacceptable."
The women of the House made it known that they were disappointed in Hewett's behavior, Urban said.
"We want to encourage our young women to follow in our footsteps and to be public servants," she said.
Hewett said he has three children, a son and two daughters.
"I actually did a conference call with my three children," he said. "'I just wanted you to hear it from your dad first.'"
He also called his wife of 30 years, and she told him that she was behind him because she knew he would never say something this stupid on purpose, he said.
"If I would have made a statement like that and meant it just the way people took it, I probably wouldn't have slept that night knowing I had just said one of the stupidest things in the world," Hewett said.
He said he didn't think anything of it at the time, but "in hindsight, I can honestly see how they could be misconstrued into something sexual."
Urban said she was grateful that Hewett was coming forward and apologizing.
"It's not easy. Good for him," Urban said.
Matt Fleury, president and chief executive officer of the science center, said he was in the audience with the student's mother and grandmother when she testified.
"She spoke effectively, after which there were some affirming comments from members of the panel," he said in a statement Thursday night. "Neither the student, her family members nor I clearly heard Rep. Hewett's comment and we were unaware that anything that could be perceived as offensive had been said until reading news accounts. Tonight I called Rep. Hewett, who emphatically apologized. We believe him to be sincere. We have passed his apology on to the student, and she has accepted it."
He said the science center is honoring the teen's request to maintain her privacy and is not releasing her name.
Staff writer Judy Benson contributed to this report.