A former member of the state Parole Board has filed a wrongful-termination suit against Governor Deval Patrick and William “Mo” Cowan, former US senator, alleging that the bulk of the panel was threatened and forced to resign after a career criminal they paroled fatally shot a Woburn police officer.
According to a suit filed Friday in Essex Superior Court by Pamela Lombardini, state troopers marched the board into a meeting with Cowan — then Patrick’s chief of staff — on Jan. 13, 2011, and he handed them prepared letters of resignation and told them to sign or else “it would get ugly.”
Lombardini, a former federal probation officer, said she resigned “under coercion and duress and as a result of that threat” and is seeking unspecified monetary damages in a suit that offers a behind-the-scenes look of one of the most dramatic moments of Patrick’s governorship. His office declined to comment on the suit Tuesday, and messages left at Cowan’s home were not returned.
The mass resignations occurred amid outrage over the board’s 2008 release of Dominic Cinelli, who was serving three concurrent sentences of 15 years to life.
Patrick ordered an inquiry into Cinelli’s parole as the governor faced pressure from police chiefs across the state to take decisive action to restore public trust in the board after Cinelli killed Woburn Officer John B. Maguire during an attempted robbery the day after Christmas in 2010. Cinelli also died in the shoot-out.
The inquiry determined that the Middlesex district attorney’s office did not attend Cinelli’s parole hearing because the parole agency had failed to notify it. The office had opposed Cinelli’s release in 2005.
The report also found that the board did not know Cinelli had a further record under the alias Salvatore Demarco that included a charge of assaulting a Chelsea police officer in 1985 because the state did not have an automated fingerprint system in place until 1986.
The day after the inquiry was released, Lombardini says in her suit, the board was scheduled to meet with Mary Beth Heffernan, then public safety secretary, whose office had completed the report.
As the members arrived at their offices for the meeting, they were approached by a state trooper and another person carrying photographs of the members, the suit says.
The suit says the trooper told the board members to stay in their offices until Heffernan was ready to meet them. He returned and asked the members if they were armed, it says.
“That question shocked and intimidated [Lombardini],” the suit says.
Several troopers later escorted the members to a conference room, according to the suit. Cowan stood at the head of the table. Lombardini says in the suit that Cowan stated that although Patrick believed the board did not do anything wrong in the Cinelli case, the governor wanted letters of resignation from the five board members who participated in the vote. They had 10 minutes to decide.
Lombardini and her lawyer, William H. Sheehan, declined to comment on the suit.
Thomas F. Merigan Jr., who served on the board for seven years until he, too, resigned that day, backed up Lombardini’s account. “Everything she said is absolutely true,” he said. “We were assured right up until the day before that we had done nothing wrong.”
Other members on the board at the time did not return calls for comment.