HARVARD — On Wednesday afternoon, the Massachusetts Ethics Commission released its 16-page Decision and Order, announcing that the Commission had found against Harvard School Supt. Thomas Jefferson and former Harvard School Committee Chairman Paul Wormser for each violating two sections of the Conflict of Interest Law. For each count, Jefferson and Wormers were fined $2,000, for a total of $4,000 per respondent.
Wormser, since having relocated to California, could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. At his November Ethics Commission hearing, Wormser declined to provide his current contact information to the Harvard Hillside.
However, contacted Wednesday, Jefferson expressed relief over the public conclusion of the investigation that has been conducted largely behind closed doors by the Commission for some 4 years (see sidebar for local reaction).
ETHICS DECISION AND ORDER
“Public school districts bear the weighty responsibility of determining whether and how they can address the needs of students requiring special education,” starts the Ethics Commission Decision and Order, authorized on April 16 and disseminated Wednesday, April 28 by the Commission on both its website and via media alert.
In an accompanying press release disseminated by Communications Division Chief David Giannotti, Commission Executive Director Karen Nober is quoted as saying, “Public employees may not use their positions to bypass established procedures to secure private benefits for themselves or their superiors… A School Committee member who is the parent of a special needs student must follow the same process as any other parent of a special needs student in seeking reimbursement of private school tuition.”
“Any private deals or negotiations between a School Committee member and a Superintendent, a superior and a subordinate, must be disclosed publicly by each employee before he engages in any official action that would raise even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” said Nober.
The Commission found that Wormser, who was then the School Committee Chairman, repeatedly lobbied prior Supt. Mirhan Keoseian in 2005 for district reimbursement for his daughter to attend private school. Wormser’s daughter was a recipient of special education (SPED) services. Keoseian advised Wormser to follow established procedure, the so-called TEAM meeting approach where teachers, evaluators and parents collectively making the call to appropriately place a SPED student. Keoseian refused to consider special dispensation for Wormser.
Wormser was free to send the child anyway and later seek reimbursement via appeal to the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals or to the courts. But that’s not what happened.
Jefferson succeeded Keoseian as superintendent on July 1, 2005. The Commission concluded the lobbying began anew during work meetings between Wormser and new Supt. Jefferson. “Repeatedly bringing up a personal financial matter at the end of meetings about school business was an improper use of Wormser’s official position,” the Decision reads.
A subsequent TEAM meeting in January 2006 concluded the child would be appropriately placed in-district. The Commission wrote in its decision that Jefferson then singularly reviewed the documentation gathered to that point and on June 8, 2006 unilaterally decided to approve partial reimbursement for Wormser’s daughter’s tuition (then some $30,000 a year) to the tune of $15,000 a year for two years. The Commission cited Jefferson for doing so “without consulting with the IEP [Individualized Education Plan] team or setting up another IEP meeting, and without contacting anyone from Cushing Academy….” and “over the objections of the Harvard public schools Special Education Director,” who was then Charles Horn.
“When the school district’s attorney drafted the reimbursement agreement, it included a signature block for Jefferson,” reads the press release, “Jefferson, however, instructed the Special Education Director to sign, saying, “it wouldn’t look right” for him to sign the agreement.” Subsequent tuition reimbursement deals were struck between Jefferson and Wormser for a total of $60,000, but ultimately only $30,000 was paid out before the family moved west when the controversy erupted over the two $15,000 payments to Wormser directly.
Both Jefferson and Wormser were faulted for breaching the Conflict of Interest Law on two charges each. On Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 268A, Section 23(b)(2), the law prohibits public employees from knowingly, or with reason to know, use or attempt to use their official position to secure an unwarranted privilege or exemption of substantial value “not properly available to similarly situated individuals.” Each man was fined $2,000 for this violation. The Commission concluded Wormser used his chairmanship to leverage benefits for personal reimbursement on tuition, and that Jefferson “used his position as Superintendent to deviate from usual procedure in order to approve an agreement of substantial value to Wormser, his superior.”
In addition, each was fined $2,000 more for violation of MGL Chapter 268A, Section 23(b)(3) – which prohibits public employees to knowingly (or with reason to know) act in a way that a reasonable person would conclude that any person can improperly or unduly influence a party or person. Jefferson was cited for negotiationg with Wormser directly without first “publicly disclosing that he was engaged in a financial negotiation with a school committee member.” Wormser was cited for failing to disclose the tuition reimbursement claim with Jefferson while he participated in the school committee’s evaluation of Jefferson’s performance.”