The Town of East Haven sent a cease-and-desist letter to an anti-sex trafficking nonprofit called We Are One, Inc, demanding that founder Ashley Phan (pictured on the right) remove the police and fire department logos from her advertisements for a community event, despite both departments initially allowing use of their logos and supporting the event.
The event was meant to raise awareness of child and female sex trafficking, as well as provide a venue to collect donations. Phan had partnered with a number of local businesses, some of which hosted the fundraiser, and the event was to feature snacks, games, a raffle and arts and crafts.
“My goal is to teach children to recognize the red flags of online grooming and predatory behavior in a safe, age-appropriate environment,” Phan said in a press release. “We must teach our children to protect themselves in popular digital spaces that are oftentimes the most dangerous.”
According to emails and text messages provided to Inside Investigator, Phan had initially secured the support of the East Haven Fire Department, who said they would provide two vehicles for “touch-a-truck” for kids, and the East Haven Police Department, who said they would supply a K-9 dog for photographs.
According to a June 12 email from Assistant Fire Chief Christopher Rosa to Phan, he was willing to supply a fire truck and an EMS rescue vehicle, as well as volunteers to help Phan with setting up and breaking down the event and gave her permission for use of the fire department’s logo. However, Rosa did caution that they could not sponsor the event, as that would require permission from the town.
“Other than supplying you a couple of trucks for the touch-a-truck event on the 22nd along with some volunteer members that can help with set-up and/or breakdown for the event, that is about all that we can for assist you with,” Rosa wrote. “Please understand that while we completely support your cause and are willing to help out where we can, between the use of our logo on the flyer, the social media post, and your request to put signage at the firehouse on Town property, we are toeing the line on appearing to be sponsors of your event. As a municipal department that would be an issue with the Town and would have to go through the legal department. Which would only serve to delay your event.”
According to text messages between Phan and East Haven Police Captain Joseph Murgo, Murgo said the event was for a “great cause,” offered to provide some police vehicles and thanked her for thinking of them. He also provided the department’s logo for Phan to use.
However, after Phan reached out to the town’s economic development director Michelle Benivegna, she received a cease-and-desist letter from the town’s attorney. Both the fire department and police department then emailed her to let her know they could no longer provide vehicles, the K-9, or support.
“The entities listed herein, whom I represent, are not involved with, nor participating in this event,” wrote East Haven Town Attorney Michael Luzzi in a June 16 email. “Initial sentiments about support for the event was provided until it was learned the landlord had not authorized this event, and after some additional information was obtained. The purpose of my correspondence is to formally demand that you immediately stop making public or private representations that the Town of East Haven, the EHPD and the EHFD are involved in anyway.”
The letter goes on to make a formal demand that Phan remove any advertisements she posted for the event containing the fire department or police department logos, both digital and physical, and threatened legal action if Phan continued to make “false representations” that town leadership had made false representations about her.
“At no time did this occur,” Luzzi wrote. “The use of this narrative only started after it was made clear to you that my clients were not in support of your event after a complete review. I trust that you realize that such statements can lead to legal action.”
The town’s resistance and the withdrawal of the police and fire department led Phan to hold the event indoors with the businesses that partnered with her for the fundraiser. Phan had chosen this location, a strip mall sandwiched between East Haven Town Hall and the East Haven Fire Department, because the property had previously contained massage parlors she believes were involved in trafficking.
According to the New Haven Register, the Tokyo Leisure Club at that property, and a nearby Zodiac Health Club were both raided by local police for suspected sex trafficking in 2013, and the owner of the massage parlor was arrested — twice — for promoting prostitution. Phan believes the practice has continued under new massage parlors with new names.
Phan said this was the first major event her organization, which was founded in 2022, hosted. “We’re very grassroots,” said Phan, who recently graduated from Fairfield University and whose interest and activism in trafficking began in 2020 during the pandemic. Phan said the town’s response to her event was “ridiculous.”
“I rebranded everything. I had a nonprofit organization that was going to partner with me to take the place of the police and fire department. I wasn’t going to shut it down,” Phan said. “It’s like they’re writing the rules as they go. It’s so bizarre.”
Town Attorney Luzzi did not respond to a request for comment, but Benivegna said in an emailed comment that their decision was based on a conversation with the property owner and evaluation by town officials but would not offer any further information.
“After discussions with the retail property owner, and then additional evaluation by our public safety officials, our town attorney issued correspondence instructing that the Town logos should not be utilized, and that the Town could not support this event,” Benivegna wrote.
Despite the last-minute loss of the fire trucks and K-9, the event went on as scheduled, Phan said.
“It went great, but people did come asking about the police department and the fire department,” Phan said, adding she told people they moved the event inside because it rained that day. “I wasn’t going to bash first responders. What ends up happening in these small towns is they blame the face of it, instead of the people in the background writing the rules.”
“I didn’t get into the all the drama,” Phan said. “I’m not a negative person, but this was drama they facilitated against an anti-trafficking nonprofit.”