LAWRENCE — Getting fraud and embezzlement convictions against former School Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy was not an easy task that came together overnight, District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said Friday.
The public corruption scandal involved years of meticulous work by local and state police detectives, auditors and computer specialists who scrutinized hundreds of thousands of documents to bring Laboy to justice.
"We couldn't go after this with a sledge hammer. It had to be a scalpel. The goal was to show the public trust had been violated," Blodgett said.
Laboy, 61, Lawrence superintendent for nearly 10 years, was convicted Thursday of five counts of fraud and embezzlement for abusing public school resources for personal gain. The trial lasted eight days in Salem Superior Court.
Judge Richard Welch yesterday sentenced him to two years in jail, with 90 days to be served, followed by one year of house arrest, three years probation and 600 hours of community service.
Laboy, an educator for 37 years, will also have to pay restitution — the amount is still to be determined.
Laboy's crimes were "not a momentary lapse of judgement," Blodgett said in an interview after the sentencing. "He had a chance to do great things for the city of Lawrence and its children. But instead of focusing on the children, he focused on himself. He built an empire for himself to the detriment of the city," Blodgett said.
A 12-person jury found Laboy guilty of abusing public school resources — specifically having school graphic designers create and prepare print jobs for an outside educational group, the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, and for his son's Sal's Pizza shop in Methuen.
Witnesses for the prosecution testified Laboy took a $1,500 cash kickback from a graphic designer, something that Laboy denied.
He was also convicted of using school employees to drive around his adult son after the younger Laboy lost his license for two years, and for having custodians and facilities managers meet with contractors and repeatedly retrieve trash from his Methuen home.
He was additionally convicted of illegal possession of alcohol on school property. Detectives seized 16 bottles of alcohol, some opened, from his downtown school department office. Laboy admitted during testimony that he occasionally had a glass of wine in his office when he worked late. On the alcohol charge, Welch sentenced Laboy to one day in jail — which he served on Thursday after the guilty verdicts against him were read and he was taken into custody.
Jurors acquitted Laboy of three fraud and embezzlement counts, charging him with using school employees to pick up his sick grandchildren at school, to fix electrical problems with his pool and to wire computers in his home.
Prosecutor sought harsher sentence
At yesterday's sentencing, prosecutor Maureen Wilson Leal asked Welch to impose a two-year jail sentence, 1,000 hours of community service, $1,000 fine, five years probation and restitution. The bottom line, she said, was "the children, the students of Lawrence deserve better. He took advantage ... of a community that could not afford it."
"The Lawrence public schools became his personal errand business where employees were at his disposal," Leal said. "He definitely took from the Lawrence Public Schools to benefit himself. This was all about him."
She also said Laboy believed "he was untouchable...That everyone else was going to take the blame for him."
Scott Gleason, Laboy's defense attorney, suggested four years probation and if necessary, a very short jail sentence. He asked Welch to consider Laboy's lack of previous criminal record, his age and an ongoing heart condition. He submitted a stack of character references to Welch and asked him to consider "the utter destruction" that occurred in Laboy's life during the past three years. Laboy, he said, is also interested in performing community service for the Lawrence Public Schools, Gleason said.
Before sentencing, Welch acknowledged that imposing sentences is the hardest part of a judge's job, and acknowledged that Laboy "had done good things in his life and helped a large amount of people."
A rocky 10 years
The state Board of Education approved hiring LaBoy as superintendent of the struggling school district in July of 2000.
LaBoy was an assistant superintendent in Brooklyn, N.Y. Under a joint agreement signed by the city and the state in 1998, the state Board of Education had to approve the hiring of Lawrence school superintendents.
Even then, there were some concerns he did not have enough of a background in finances or in secondary education.
He was hired at a salary of $130,000. His contract stipulated that he must live in the city, but he later bought a home in Methuen, claiming he was unable to find a suitable location in Lawrence after touring 30 homes.
By the time he was fired in 2010, Laboy was making more than $200,000 a year.
His tenure as superintendent was marked by controversy and conflict, including a police investigation and counterclaims of assault involving School Committee member Amy C. McGovern in 2005. They were later dropped.
One high point was the opening in 2007 of a $110 million high school — once the most expensive and modern in the state. "This new state of the art high school will became a national model of modern education," Laboy declared.
Calling it the "lowest point" in his career, Laboy, in April 2009, apologized for the actions of his special assistant Mark Rivera after The Eagle-Tribune revealed Rivera was using school-owned computers and software to run background checks on mayoral candidates, public officials and celebrities. Rivera would later resign.
The following month, Laboy checked himself into Lawrence General Hospital for work-related stress issues amid the controversy surrounding Rivera's so-called "snoop list."
In June 2009, police raided Laboy's offices and his Methuen home, alleging "financial improprieties," seizing computers and other items, and the School Committee suspended him indefinitely with pay.
Nearly a year later, the School Committee fired Laboy after he was indicted on eight counts of fraud and embezzlement and a single count of illegal possession of alcohol on school property.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.