THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT on Tuesday refused to dismiss a whistleblower case filed against the state after former governor Deval Patrick fired a subordinate who questioned a hearing officer’s decision allowing his brother-in-law to reside in Massachusetts without registering as a sex offender.
Patrick is not a party to the lawsuit (a defamation suit against him was dismissed), but his actions were a central focus of the whistleblower case. The SJC’s decision allows that case to move forward, and the court’s reasoning suggests the plaintiff – Saundra Edwards, the former executive director of the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board – has a chance at success.
Edwards assumed her position in 2007, and was immediately confronted with a sensitive decision involving Bernard Sigh, Patrick’s brother-in-law. Sigh had pleaded guilty in 1993 to spousal rape in California. After serving time in prison, Sigh moved to Massachusetts but did not register as a sex offender.
When Sigh’s status became an issue in Patrick’s 2006 campaign for governor, the Sex Offender Registry Board began investigating. The initial preliminary finding was that Sigh should register as a low-level sex offender. Sigh challenged that ruling and a hearing officer named Attilio Paglia took preliminary steps to overrule the earlier decision. After hearing complaints from staffers, Edwards researched the case and told Paglia that she thought his decision was a mistake.
According to the SJC decision’s recitation of facts, Edwards was on firm legal ground. “Generally, any person who has been convicted of a sex offense in another state that is a ‘like offense’ to a sex offense that requires registration under Massachusetts law must register with SORB if the individual moves to the Commonwealth,” the SJC said in its decision.
Edwards did not order Paglia to change his decision, and the review board subsequently issued his original decision as drafted. Edwards then ordered remedial training for all staffers and implemented a new policy allowing the board to review and possibly overrule the decisions of hearing officers. Paglia resigned in 2008 and sued the review board and Edwards under the whistleblower statute. That case was settled in July 2014.
Later that year in September, Patrick fired Edwards, although he allowed her to resign as a face-saving measure. Several months after that he told the press that “she influenced inappropriately, or attempted to influence inappropriately, a hearing officer, and that’s a matter of record. That hearing did involve my brother-in-law, that is true. We’ve never made a secret of that, but it’s still inappropriate, and that’s the reason why I asked for her resignation.”
In its ruling allowing the case to proceed to trial, the SJC said Patrick raised a host of other issues why he fired Edwards. The court held that his reasoning “is a genuine question of material fact that must be resolved by a fact finder.”