BOSTON — Harvard Schools Superintendent Thomas Jefferson has filed an appeal of the April 28 Ethics Commission charges and fines against him. His appeal was entered May 19 at Suffolk Superior Court. The deadline to appeal was last Friday, May 28. It appears his co-respondent in the ethics case, Paul Wormser, a former chairman of the Harvard School Committee, has let his appeal right lapse.
Jefferson and Wormser were found responsible for violating two sections each of conflict of interest laws when Jefferson approved $60,000 worth of tuition reimbursement for Wormser’s daughter to attend Cushing Academy in Ashburnham instead of remaining in-district at The Bromfield School. Ultimately, two $15,000 reimbursement checks were made out to Wormser before his family relocated to California
Attorney Michael Long represented Jefferson at a combined adjudicatory hearing before the Ethics Commission last November. Long and his colleague, Joshua Coleman, filed the appeal for Jefferson on May 19. Wormser represented himself at the fall hearing without legal counsel.
Jefferson’s complaint provides a 24-point chronology, from Jefferson’s January 2005 hiring and July 1, 2005 start date through Wormser’s Committee tenure and requests for tuition reimbursement leading to the eventual settlement agreement worked out between the two in September 2006.
In his appeal, Jefferson explained he did not file a conflict of interest disclosure form with the Ethics Commission regarding the Wormser agreement because “he believed that filing a disclosure would violate the student records law.” Wormser’s child was a special education student.
As justification for negotiating with Wormser instead of bringing the matter before the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals, Jefferson pointed to a prior, unrelated dispute that lead to “substantial legal fees” for the Harvard School District. In that case, “the School District agreed to reimburse the parent for an out-of-district placement.”
“It is well established that the School District’s decision to reimburse the Wormser’s [sic], who timely requested reimbursement for the Cushing academy [sic], a non-Department of Education approved school, is not illegal,” wrote Jefferson’s counsel.
Jefferson confirmed being notified in April 2007 of the Ethics Commission’s preliminary inquest into the matter. In October 2007, he had denied receiving such a notification. Following last fall’s hearing, Jefferson and Wormser were each fined $4,000 and found to have violated state ethics laws.
Jefferson has the burden of proving the commission’s April decision was unsupported by the facts in evidence, that key facts the commission relied upon are unworthy of consideration or that the decision was erroneous under law or was arbitrary or capricious — an abuse of discretion or not in keeping with the law.
Jefferson’s complaint cites a chronology but does not outline for the court which facts or law the Commission relied upon that justifies overturning the Commission’s decision. But that’s of no real concern at this point, said Shirley Attorney Ernest Hyde, a lawyer in practice for 18 years, as well as a long term member and past President of the Northern Middlesex Bar Association. The goal here is to preserve one’s right to appeal.
“You only have a certain number of days to make an appeal, first of all,” Hyde said. In this instance, the controlling law requires an appeal within 30 days of the issuance of the Commissions’ Decision and Order.
“In Superior Court, if you file a complaint as an appeal, that complaint can be amended if the court allows or anytime up to an answer being filed,” by the Ethics Commission, said Hyde. “They can go back and put some more meat in the complaint and they don’t need Court approval to do that” until the answer is filed and then with court permission that’s typically granted in a reasonable period of time “unless they’re 2 years down the road and someone says’ woops” and in that case they probably wouldn’t let someone amend it.”
The appeal concludes, “Plaintiff respectfully prays that this Honorable Court, after judicial review, set aside the ‘Decision’ of the State Ethics Commission.” The 6-page appeal can be viewed at the Harvard Hillside Web site, www.harvardhillside.com.
Despite previous telephone conversations with clerks at Suffolk Superior Court, Jefferson’s filing was not immediately found. Court personnel said it likely due to the way the appeal was captioned, or titled, making it difficult to initially locate.
On Sunday, May 23, the Boston Globe wrote an article stating Jefferson had appealed. On Monday, May 24, Ethics Commission Public Education and Communications Division Chief David Giannotti stated the Commission had not yet been notified of Jefferson’s appeal, but two days later, the appeal arrived at the Commission’s Boston offices.