Hannah Fisher never expected to get a personal phone call from the incoming state treasurer, Deborah Goldberg, a woman whose name she mainly recognized as the president of the board of the small Newton-based nonprofit where Fisher worked.
It didn’t go well. In fact, the conversation back in November set in motion a contentious series of events, leaving Fisher unemployed with no immediate job prospects.
And it entangled Goldberg in an awkward conflict: using her position as the state treasurer-elect with access to state employment documents to benefit a private nonprofit agency she heads.
Fisher believes the conflict warrants a change in state law to prevent similar situations in the future. Goldberg, through aides, says she did nothing improper. The executive director of the nonprofit agency where Fisher worked until Friday declined to discuss the issue, calling it a personnel matter.
Goldberg and her aides agree with Fisher on the broad facts of the case, but not all. They diverge widely on the tone of that telephone conversation and the blame for the outcome.
The dispute started last fall, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, when Fisher received a call from Goldberg that she said left her “shocked” and “distressed.” The 28-year-old law school graduate, who had been hired in May 2014 as an adoptions coordinator for Adoptions With Love, where Goldberg serves as board president, was in Los Angeles visiting her family for the holiday.
Goldberg, who had been elected state treasurer earlier that month but would not take office until late January, told Fisher that she had come across a job application Fisher had submitted just after the November election for a low-level attorney’s position in the state Treasury’s debt management office. Goldberg told Fisher she had to tell Adoptions With Love senior staff that she was job-hunting.
If Fisher failed to do so by Jan. 1, Goldberg told her, she herself would inform the agency’s executive director, Fisher said.
Fisher said she was devastated, feeling the confidentiality of her application had been compromised. Worse, she was being forced to reveal her job-hunting plans to her employers.
“This ultimatum has stunned and deeply upset me,’’ Fisher told Amy Cohen, the agency’s executive director, in an e-mail two days after Goldberg’s phone call. She described the call as “startling and upsetting” and called the treasurer-elect’s tone “punitive.’’
There are no state laws that legally require a person in Goldberg’s position — transitioning from her election to her swearing-in — to keep job applications confidential, according to specialists in the field. But best practices, those specialists say, dictate that confidentiality in those cases be honored. Without it, the state would dampen the interest of qualified talent to seek state positions.
From Fisher’s perspective, Goldberg set in motion her job loss.
In an e-mail from California, she told Cohen that she was “not going anywhere soon. I have no job leads.” But she explained that financial pressures were forcing her to seek a better-paying position, and she wanted to use the law degree she had earned in 2012 from Northeastern University.
Cohen initially assured Fisher there was no problem. “Enjoy your time with your family and do not worry about this,’’ she said in an e-mail, adding that they would discuss “the situation in person.’’
But on her return that Monday, Fisher said, she faced a tougher tone. From her perspective there was a lot to worry about.
“The day I returned to work, my supervisors informed me that . . . they would be searching for my replacement on January 1,’’ Fisher wrote in a complaint to the State Ethics Commission. “If I did not find another position before they hired my replacement, I would be fired.’’
Several months later, she says, she was terminated, effective this past Friday. Fisher did not find another job in the interim.
Neither Goldberg nor Fisher’s work supervisor offered any direct rebuttal to her description of what happened. Goldberg declined to be interviewed, but her spokesman Matt Sheaff said in a statement that Goldberg only urged Fisher to inform her agency of her search for another job.
“Deb Goldberg simply advised Hannah to be upfront with her supervisor about her desire to work elsewhere,’’ Sheaff said. “Ultimately Hannah was kept on the payroll four additional months while actively looking for a new job.”
The statement did not address other issues raised by Fisher, including the tone of their conversation, the ultimatum she says Goldberg laid down, or the conflict the treasurer faced between her public duties and responsibility as the agency’s board president.
Cohen, the agency’s executive director, said she would not discuss the issues raised by Fisher because it was a “personnel” matter.
Asked why she didn’t request a raise that would allow her to remain working at Adoptions With Love, Fisher, who received a $38,000 annual salary, said it was clear that a wage increase was not on the table.
“They pretty much told me I was out,’’ she said. “It was not like it was a ‘Let’s work this out’ kind of meeting,’’ Fisher said. “It was, ‘We’re going to find your replacement.’ ”
After learning she would be replaced, Fisher asked the Ethics Commission if Goldberg had broken the state’s conflict-of-interest law. She said the commission told her that technically Goldberg was not a state employee at the time and therefore not covered by the conflict statute. She became a public official on Jan. 21, when she was sworn in as state treasurer.
But even if she were covered by the law, the issue would be murky. There was no direct financial gain for her agency or a loss to the Commonwealth. The only resulting harm was to Fisher. She argues that Goldberg would have been in conflict because she was improperly disclosing information and used it to protect her personal interests.
Fisher, while speaking warmly of Adoptions With Love and her experience there, said she has gone public with her case in order to change the law.
“I came forward to shed light on a gap in the system meant to protect citizens from abuses by government officials,’’ she said. “A flaw in our ethics laws allows elected officials in transition periods unfettered access to nonpublic information, which may be used to benefit their private interests without repercussion.”
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.