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‘This was about right versus wrong’: Ex-state board head speaks after jury finds former governor wrongly fired her

Saundra Edwards was fired as Deval Patrick was heading out the door.

Deval Patrick greeted people outside a news conference after he was elected governor in November 2006.CHITOSE SUZUKI

A day after then-governor Deval Patrick fired her in 2014 as the head of the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board, Saundra Edwards was afraid to leave her house. Television news trucks circled her neighborhood, she later testified. Reporters banged on her door. She had friends pick her son up from school.

Everyone wanted to know what happened. She did, too.

Eventually, she learned that Patrick terminated her for allegedly pressuring a hearing officer to classify Patrick’s brother-in-law, Bernard Sigh, as a sex offender. Sigh had moved to Massachusetts after serving time for “spousal rape” in California and Edwards unsuccessfully tried to overturn a hearing officer’s decision that Sigh didn’t have to register.

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Edwards filed a whistleblower lawsuit, alleging she was wrongly fired and retaliated against, and has fought for eight years to clear her name. That suit culminated earlier this month when an Essex County jury ruled Patrick had retaliated against her, and awarded her $820,542 for lost wages and retirement benefits.

“Obviously, the last eight years have been difficult,” Edwards said in a statement to the Globe, her first public comments since the ruling. “But it was just as important for me to see this through as it was to take a stand in the first place.”

“This was about right versus wrong, on every level,” she added.

While the jury’s decision may salve some of her anguish, it also revived the nearly decade-old dispute pitting Patrick against one of his own top appointees. And the testimony taken in court provides a more detailed understanding of the once-high-profile political spat.

The jury’s verdict was a direct rebuke of Patrick’s actions, according to several observers.

“For a politician to do this is absolutely baffling,” said John Cluverius, a UMass Lowell political science professor. “You’re better off just to quietly settle and as part of the settlement bind people from talking about the case and then get on with your political life.”

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Patrick didn’t respond to a request for comment on the verdict, nor did the lawyers who represented the state.

The state — not Patrick — must pay the final judgment. A defamation claim against Patrick was dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2017 because the court said Edwards hadn’t demonstrated that the governor’s public statements were made with “actual malice.”

Edwards’s attorneys are now seeking triple damages — and legal fees — which could bring the total payout to $2.5 million or more.

In court, Patrick defended his actions, saying that he knew he’d be criticized for firing Edwards. He blamed her for poor morale at the agency and her failure to update the board’s regulations.

“I didn’t need the headache,” Patrick testified at the trial earlier this month.

He said Edwards’s alleged interference was “particularly troublesome and particularly complicated — complicated because the case involved my brother-in-law, but troubling because trying to interfere with an independent hearing officer is out of bounds. It’s wrong.”

“I said, ‘Maybe we ought to look at refreshing that whole organization — look at the whole board,’ ” said Patrick, who is now teaching at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and working as a senior advisor at Bain Capital. .

An experienced sex crimes prosecutor, Edwards was hired by Patrick in 2007 to oversee the Sex Offender Registry Board, which maintains the state’s sex offender registry and classifies convicted sex offenders according to their potential danger to the public.

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The controversy over Bernard Sigh, Patrick’s now ex-brother in law, predated Edwards’s appointment to the board.

During Patrick’s election campaign in 2006, the Boston Herald reported that Sigh had been convicted of “spousal rape” in California in 1993; he admitted he had committed “an act of sexual intercourse with my wife against her will by means of force.” Sigh served jail time and probation following the conviction, then moved to Massachusetts in 1995. He didn’t register as a sex offender here.

Patrick was furious with the story and said it nearly destroyed his sister’s family.

“It was in every paper on the East Coast within a couple of weeks of the election,” Patrick testified earlier this month. “Their own children didn’t know. it was an incredibly difficult time.”

In her first week on the job she learned that a hearing officer, AJ Paglia, had decided Sigh didn’t need to register as a sex offender, finding that his crime was more akin to indecent assault and battery, which didn’t require registration. His supervisors were upset with the ruling, Edwards later testified, and Paglia himself sought her guidance.

Edwards reviewed the file and became convinced Paglia had made a mistake. Rape is rape, she reasoned. On the witness stand, she called Paglia a “rogue” employee.

“I was at a loss,” Edwards testified. “It was by all definitions a rape.”

This year, California eliminated the “spousal rape” distinction in state law, and the crime is now punished the same as any rape conviction.

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With the backing of others at the agency, as well as the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Edwards said, she removed Paglia from hearing any more cases. She also sought to reverse Paglia’s decision so that Sigh would have to register with the board.

But the agency’s regulations at the time did not allow a ruling to be reversed or even modified, so the decision stood.

Paglia resigned shortly thereafter and filed a whistleblower suit against the state, alleging he was retaliated against for the Sigh decision. Over Edwards’s objections, the state settled for $60,000 in April 2014, according to multiple witnesses at trial.

The settlement sparked Patrick’s renewed interest in the matter, according to his recent testimony.

On September 16, 2014, Patrick had his staff summon Edwards to the State House. There, she was told the governor had decided to “go in a different direction,” she said under oath. The agency’s executive director, Jeanne Holmes, also was terminated.

“All I could say was, “Did I do anything wrong?” Edwards testified. She was told she hadn’t.

As Edwards drove home, she testified, her state-issued Blackberry went dark and her contacts disappeared before her eyes.

Patrick told her “the final straw” was the case involving Sigh’s “experience,” Edwards testified earlier this month. “It wasn’t an experience. It was a rape. I was trying to protect the public by having a rapist have to register according to the rules.”

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From that day on, the case dogged her. Whenever anyone Googled her name, the charges resurfaced.

“I’d get over it and it would rear its head again the next year and the next year and then the next year,” she testified.

She said she didn’t find another job until last year. She now works for a suburban school system at a salary substantially lower than the $119,000 a year she made at the registry board.

“I felt betrayed — that a person could just get up there and unravel the work I had done for seven years. To go on full blast to the entire world with lies,” she testified.

The man who sparked the controversy, Bernard Sigh, raped Patrick’s sister again in 2017 and was sentenced to prison for 6 to 8 years. The couple divorced, and he died in prison several months ago.


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.