NEWBURYPORT — One morning last fall, former Gov. Deval Patrick told a Newburyport Superior Court jury that he was concerned by a settlement “which cost the taxpayers thousands of, tens of thousands of dollars” when he decided to replace the head of the state Sex Offender Registry Board in 2014.
“Every dollar matters,” Patrick testified, according to a transcript of his Nov. 1 cross-examination by the lawyer for Saundra Edwards, the Lawrence woman he has admitted ousting from her job as chair of the Sex Offender Registry Board just three months before he himself was set to leave office.
That decision to remove Edwards has now led to a verdict that, if upheld, will cost taxpayers many times more than the $60,000 paid out to former SORB hearing officer A.J. Paglia.
One day after Patrick’s testimony, that Newburyport Superior Court jury awarded Edwards more than $820,000 in compensatory damages and for emotional distress, after finding that Patrick had fired Edwards in retaliation for actions she took after Paglia decided Patrick’s brother-in-law did not have to register as a sex offender for a 1993 conviction of spousal rape.
And that $820,000 figure, which does not include interest or the cost of the private law firm the attorney general’s office hired to handle the nearly decade-long litigation, could potentially triple under a provision of the whistleblower law that jurors found the state had violated when Patrick removed Edwards from her position.
Last week, lawyers for Edwards filed a motion seeking punitive damages that could push the total judgment — and the bill to taxpayers — north of $2 million.
Making their cases
Patrick “lied about his reasons for terminating Saundra Edwards, and he did it to cover abusing his position (to) support his personal agenda,” Edwards’ attorneys, Benjamin Flam and Philip Gordon, wrote. “More troublingly, not only was the governor’s decision to fire Ms. Edwards done recklessly, he did it publicly, widely and harshly — using strong language that he chose and repeated, over and over — either to destroy Ms. Edwards or with reckless indifference to how his actions would derail her entire life and ruin her career trajectory.”
“Rather than praising Ms. Edwards for having the courage to act in the public interest despite the involvement of his brother-in-law, Governor Patrick executed her publicly,” they went on in their motion. That, they say, was “stunningly reckless” and retaliatory, and calls for punitive triple damages to be awarded by the court.
Lawyers from Greenberg Traurig, the private firm hired as special assistant attorney general to handle the case, say that the evidence at trial does not support punitive damages or a finding that Patrick lied.
“There is simply no support in the record for a finding that Governor Patrick acted out of ‘evil motive’ or ‘purpose,’ and likewise no evidence of any ‘reckless indifference’ to (Edwards’) rights,” that would support the tripling of the jury’s award, lawyer Elizabeth Dewar wrote in a response filed with the court last week.
“Contrary to the central assertion in (Edwards’) motion, the jury did not find that Governor Patrick lied, and in fact, the jury was instructed on multiple occasions that there was no defamation claim before it,” Dewar wrote.
That defamation claim against Patrick was originally part of the lawsuit, but the Supreme Judicial Court ultimately found after a lengthy pre-trial legal fight that the governor could not be held liable for the remarks.
Firing and aftermath
Edwards and executive director Jeanne Holmes, were both removed from their positions in September 2014, while Patrick was on a trade mission in Europe. The official announcement from his communications office referred to the governor wanting to go in a different direction.
But when Patrick returned to the state, his language was much stronger and he went further, at one point characterizing Edwards’ actions as “unlawful,” (a suggestion he told jurors he tried to clarify but that was muffled, but that was later repeated in a statement put out during his 2020 presidential campaign). Patrick called the Paglia settlement “the final straw” that led to his decision to replace Edwards.
Patrick also contended that his decision was motivated by low morale at the SORB office, then located in Salem, concern that the agency was losing appeals before the Supreme Judicial Court, and that the agency’s regulations hadn’t been updated.
Edwards’ lawyers showed jurors evidence and elicited testimony that she had received positive reviews for each of her seven years helming the agency, that the agency had won nine of the 12 appeals brought to the SJC during her tenure, and that a draft of the updated regulations had been completed — but was awaiting action by the governor’s office.
That left only “the final straw — Patrick’s personal motive,” Edwards’ lawyers wrote.
Beyond that, Paglia’s decision that rape of a spouse was not the equivalent to rape under Massachusetts law — and the “widespread shock” among agency leadership to that finding — took place before Edwards was appointed.
Edwards, unable to address the finding under the regulations in place at the time, opted to offer remedial training in the elements of sex crimes for the hearing officers, many of whom, like Paglia, were not attorneys.
“And, despite all of the Commonwealth’s resources and the years it had to assemble their case, not one witness testified ... that Saundra Edwards unlawfully interfered with Paglia — except, of course, Paglia and Patrick,” Flam and Gordon wrote. Even Mary Beth Heffernan, Patrick’s own public safety secretary at the time and now a judge, testified that she had never heard of any inappropriate intervention by Edwards in any hearing officer’s decision.
The lawyers also questioned why Patrick went beyond the initial statement about Edwards’ departure from the agency when he returned to Massachusetts, asking why he didn’t just say she had resigned, rather than what he did say, including that she and Holmes engaged in “an inappropriate at least, and perhaps unlawful intervention ... into an independent hearing officer’s work.”
In response, Dewar argues that Patrick, confronted by reporters, was simply being honest with the press.
“The Governor was completely transparent regarding his actions taken with regard to the plaintiff and the reasons therefor,” Dewar wrote.
Edwards’ lawyers have requested a hearing on their motion. Judge James Lang had not issued a decision on that request as of Friday.
Patrick’s late brother-in-law, Bernard Sigh, whom Patrick characterized during the trial as having had a “marvelous” reconciliation with his sister, died last year while serving a prison term for another rape conviction as well as kidnapping and stalking in 2019.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis