The former chief of staff to the state’s top medical examiner paid for thousands of dollars in personal purchases using a subordinate’s credit card and asked for a $1,500 loan from the same person, actions that state officials say they believe violated state ethics laws.
Lisa Riccobene, who no longer works at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, either knew or should have known she was using her position to get a series of “unwarranted privileges,” state officials wrote in a letter to her.
State ethics regulators publicly released their findings this week as part of closing their investigation. While they had “reasonable cause to believe” Riccobene’s actions violated state law, they said they believe the public letter was enough to ensure “future compliance.”
An attorney for Riccobene denied she ever leveraged her position for financial gain, and said her “borrowing” from the employee, whom she was friends with, was nothing more than “friendly conduct.”
Riccobene ultimately repaid the employee $7,000 in the spring of 2021 to cover her outstanding debts, including the $1,500 loan she had received roughly a year earlier, officials said. She had for years asked for, and used, the employee’s
personal credit card, first when they were both administrative assistants, and later when Riccobene was promoted first to chief of staff and then to chief administrative officer.
Riccobene used it to ring up purchases mostly ranging from $150 to several hundred dollars, according to the letter. Riccobene had at times paid the employee back in cash for some, but not all, of the charges, officials said.
Officials in the office first questioned Riccobene’s spending in April 2021, gave her warning, and required her to report it to the State Ethics Commission. Riccobene — whose tenure included revelations that she falsely claimed to have a psychology degree — left her $120,000-a-year job in July 2021; a local TV station reported at the time that she was “removed from her position.”
Riccobene and the employee had a close personal relationship, and she had asked for, and used, the other employee’s credit card before she was promoted, officials said. But, “there is reason to believe that the Employee continued to agree to your requests for personal financial favors . . . at least in part because of your superior OCME position,” according to a Jan. 31 letter that David A. Wilson, the commission’s executive director, sent Riccobene.
But once she was a supervisor, any request was, to some degree, “coercive,” and Riccobene knew or should have known she was using the power of her position to get “substantially valuable financial favors,” Wilson wrote.
It also could cut both ways, officials said. By continuing to use the credit card, and taking months to repay the loan she received, it creates the appearance that Riccobene could have “unduly” favored the employee, Wilson wrote. Throughout the time she was using the credit card, Riccobene never filed a disclosure to alert her boss.
Wilson’s letter did not say how officials in the medical examiner’s office initially discovered the situation, nor did it say how much Riccobene had actually charged to the card other than to say it was “thousands of dollars’ worth of purchases.”
Patrick Hanley, an attorney for Riccobene, said she cooperated during the investigation, and called her “one of the most dedicated and hard-working people” at the medical examiner’s office during her 16 years there.
“At the time of the ‘borrowing,’ Lisa and her co-worker were close friends outside of work, and this was unremarkable and friendly conduct in the context of that relationship,” Hanley said in a statement. “Lisa never leveraged her position to get any unwarranted privilege, but she recognizes now that someone not familiar with their relationship might see it differently. That’s why she agreed to this resolution.”
In 2018, Riccobene was initially demoted amid revelations she claimed to have a psychology degree she never earned. But 18 months later, she was again promoted, at the time to the chief administrative officer role, in which she supervised support staff in all of the agency’s facilities, including its Boston headquarters.
She also came under other public scrutiny before. When a frustrated mother struggled for years to get an autopsy report on her 28-days-old baby, she contacted her local lawmaker — at the suggestion of a medical examiner employee — to apply pressure on the agency. An irate Riccobene then called the mother and demanded to know which employee suggested she go public, according to a STAT report that, in part, examined the office’s handling of child deaths.
Six current or former employees confirmed to the news outlet that they had heard Riccobene speak that way over the phone, and all described being horrified at how office representatives treat families and others.
“Do you believe everything these families tell you?” Riccobene told STAT at the time.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.