NEWBURYPORT — A judge is now considering a request to triple the $820,000 awarded by a jury last November to the former chair of the Sex Offender Registry Board over her removal by former Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014.
Saundra Edwards, of Lawrence, a career prosecutor who was tapped by Patrick to head the agency, was removed from her position just three months before the end of Patrick’s term — a move Patrick admitted was linked to the agency’s handling of his brother-in-law’s first spousal rape case.
In order to find a basis to triple the award, the judge will have to decide whether the actions were outrageous, made with reckless indifference or evil intent.
Edwards’ attorneys, Philip Gordon and Benjamin Flam, suggested to a Newburyport Superior Court judge last Monday that the case cries out for punitive triple damages.
“This is the perfect case under the facts and under the law,” Gordon told Judge James Lang, who presided over the trial last fall. “There’s simply no higher public official in the Commonwealth than the governor and no closer relationship than someone in your own family, and few employees about whom we hear such glowing testimony” as Edwards.
Gordon called Patrick’s statements to reporters after returning from a trip in September 2014, “a public execution” of Edwards, who had, prior to the governor’s return, been allowed to submit a resignation.
But Terrence McCourt, the private attorney who is representing the state on behalf of the Attorney General’s office, said Patrick had no choice but to address the issue with the media.
“A simple ‘no comment’ wouldn’t have sufficed,” McCourt argued, later adding that Patrick was merely being “open and transparent” when he spoke to reporters.
McCourt suggested that the former governor “did not lie” about Edwards — his statements, McCourt said, were based on what he was led to understand by his staff, and his decision to remove Edwards based on the advice of his staff.
Later in the hearing, Gordon pushed back at that, saying the reason he and Flam were unable to challenge that assertion at trial was because the former governor’s legal counsel invoked attorney client privilege.
Gordon also argued that the jury’s quick verdict — returned within about four hours of being sent to deliberate — suggests that to them, the case was clear-cut retaliation.
McCourt, meanwhile, argued that the court can’t infer that the jury considered the rationale behind the termination.
McCourt said there was no evidence introduced at trial of any malice toward Edwards, whom Patrick did not know, and that his decision was based on reports from the acting head of SORB, Kevin Hayden, his staff, and his chief legal counsel following an investigation.
Patrick testified that it was his understanding that a $60,000 settlement with the former SORB hearing officer, who had concluded that the governor’s brother-in-law did not have to register, was partly a result of Edwards’ “interference” in the matter.
While Patrick was making his first run for governor, the California spousal rape case against his brother-in-law, Bernard Sigh, came to light in a newspaper report.
Sigh had later reconciled with Patrick’s sister and the two moved to Massachusetts — a development Patrick testified at trial was a “quite marvelous and long-lasting” reconciliation.
The discovery of the prior case led to a question of whether he would have to register as a sex offender. A non-attorney hearing officer, A.J. Paglia, concluded that he did not.
That was prior to Edwards’ arrival at the agency. After she arrived, she sought to re-train hearing officers on the legal elements of the crime of rape. Paglia quit and then filed a lawsuit, which was settled in 2014 for $60,000.
Patrick, in speaking with reporters in 2014, called that settlement “the last straw.”
Gordon suggested to Lang on Monday that Patrick knew he could not be asked about a subsequent rape and kidnapping conviction involving Sigh when he testified about the “marvelous” reconciliation. Sigh died last year while serving a prison term.
Lang said he would take the matter under advisement and issue a decision soon.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis
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