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Suffolk DA testifies in discrimination lawsuit against his office

Suffolk DA Daniel Conley defended the firing of Christina Corda, a former assistant district attorney.
Suffolk DA Daniel Conley defended the firing of Christina Corda, a former assistant district attorney.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2015)

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley found himself in court last week in a rare position — as a witness defending himself in a lawsuit by a former prosecutor who accused him of paying her less than her male colleagues and then firing her when she complained about it.

Christina Corda, who worked as a prosecutor in the gang unit of the Suffolk district attorney’s office, was fired Sept. 22, 2014, three days after a colleague’s going-away party, where she complained to Conley’s chief of staff about her salary.

“I just wanted to be treated equally,” she testified last week, struggling to hold back tears as Conley watched from the gallery. “I would have stayed there a long time, because it’s a job I loved, a job I wanted to do.”

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But when Conley took the stand Wednesday, he told the jury of six women and two men that Corda was terminated because she was drunk, cursing, and hostile when she approached his chief of staff, John Towle, and made what he considered false accusations — compromising her integrity as a prosecutor.

“An assistant district attorney is a public official, and they are held to a higher standard, so I held her to a higher standard,” Conley said.

The testimony, which began May 23 and is expected to last until Wednesday, has laid bare the tensions that existed at Conley’s office, where other women had complained about what they saw as a secretive system of promotions and pay raises.

In May 2013, a group of top female prosecutors met with Towle and other supervisors to complain about how raises and promotions were decided. After the meeting, according to testimony, job openings began being posted publicly around the office and a more transparent system of pay increases based on self-evaluations and evaluations by supervisors was developed. The raises under that system did not take effect until after Corda’s dismissal.

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Michael Tumposky, an attorney with the Boston-based law firm Hedges & Tumposky, who is not involved in the case, said the lawsuit makes two allegations with different legal standards. Corda needs to only demonstrate that men who performed equal work were paid more than she was to prove that she was discriminated against. She could then be compensated for lost wages. But she also alleges retaliation, and in that allegation she must show that her complaint of discrimination was a “substantial factor” in her firing.

“You would have to prove the intent,” he said.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

Corda, 34, who was hired by Conley in 2007, was making $53,550 in 2014, significantly less than eight male prosecutors who had started around the same time or later. They were making between $55,000 and $62,000 a year. That disparity, Corda has alleged, violates both state discrimination laws and state and federal comparable pay laws.

She has alleged that her termination was an act of retaliation for complaining to Towle. The lawsuit is against the Suffolk district attorney’s office, but Conley, who has served as district attorney since 2002, was the most critical witness in the case.

He was on the stand for 4½ hours over two days, during which he calmly but firmly defended the way his office awards pay raises and promotions.

“We can’t consider extraneous things like what gender the person is,” Conley, 57, told jurors. “That would never come into the conversation. It’s all about merit.”

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Conley said the eight prosecutors Corda cited received higher pay because they had a level of expertise or background she did not have, were supervisors at one point, or had handled more responsibilities, such as working on homicide cases, complicated appeals, or arguing before the Supreme Judicial Court. One prosecutor who had served in the war in Afghanistan acted as a legal adviser to General Stanley A. McChrystal, then to General David Petraeus.

“I don’t see them as apples to apples at all,” Conley said of comparisons between Corda and the eight men.

Conley is not being sued directly, only the office. One of the Suffolk district attorney’s office’s lawyers, Aaron R. White, also went through a list of female prosecutors whose salaries were higher than Corda’s even though they had started working in the office around the same time or later.

Under questioning by Corda’s lawyer, Stephen Churchill, Conley acknowledged Corda had been doing well, winning cases, and gaining the respect of her supervisors in the gang unit.

“Mr. Churchill, she was a competent, young mid-level prosecutor,” Conley said. “No one is disputing that.”

According to testimony, Corda initially complained to First Assistant District Attorney Patrick Haggan, a 22-year veteran of the office. He testified that Corda and another prosecutor, a black male, complained to him in March 2014 during a meeting he described as exceedingly polite.

“They were almost sheepish,” Haggan recalled, describing how they apologized for bothering him.

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Haggan testified he had been approached by other women in the office. One woman on the staff said to him, “Hopefully, you can do something about women not being treated fairly at the office.”

Towle testified Friday that he was introduced to Corda at the going-away party after Corda dropped a beer by the bar. He sought to make small talk, he said.

“She’s the best attorney in the office I’ve never had a conversation with. All I’ve heard are good things,” he recalled saying to Corda. At first, he said, she gave him a blank stare.

A minute later, Towle recalled, she interrupted his conversation — “she got in my face,” he said — and went on a profanity-laced tirade about a woman with less experience who had gotten a pay raise and was almost making the same amount as Corda. Was it because the other woman held a campaign fund-raiser for Conley’s mayoral campaign? he said she asked. She then alleged that she was being discriminated against because she was a woman and that another prosecutor made less because he is black.

“She was angry, she was agitated, her head was bobbing,” Towle said. He said he asked her to stop and they would discuss her complaint during the work week. But she continued.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, it was shocking. It was completely unexpected,” said Towle.

He said he called Conley the next morning to notify him of the encounter.

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Conley maintained that Corda’s firing was based on her interaction with Towle at the going-away party. Corda acknowledged she drank three Grey Goose vodka sodas, two pumpkin beers, and a shot of Patron tequila, but she said the alcohol had nothing to do with her complaint to Towle. Other people had been drinking at the party, too, including Towle, who said he had three Blue Moon beers.

Corda, who now works for a private firm, said she believes she was fired because the truth of her statements offended Conley. “The fact that I was drinking alcohol doesn’t change the fact that I felt I was being discriminated against because I was a woman,” she said.


Milton Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia. Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMCramer.