As a candidate for president in the #MeToo era, former governor Deval Patrick is facing renewed scrutiny for a controversial move he made late in his tenure — endorsing a decision that a man convicted of “spousal rape” did not have to register as a sex offender in Massachusetts, in a legal dispute that continues to this day.
The man, Bernard Sigh, is Patrick’s former brother-in-law. Years ago, Sigh had appealed an order to register in Massachusetts for a conviction of “spousal rape” in California.
A hearing officer had determined in 2007 that Sigh did not need to register, since Massachusetts law does not include a crime specifically called “spousal rape.” Rather than finding the California conviction analogous to a Massachusetts charge of rape, the hearing officer deemed it tantamount to indecent assault and battery.
But after two women who worked for the Sex Offender Registry Board tried to intervene and change the ruling, the hearing officer quit, sued the state, and won a settlement. In 2014, just before he left office, Patrick fired both women — the board member who had tried to overrule him and the agency’s executive director.
His political intervention in the case exposed his personal investment and the dangers of entangling the two. The victim was his sister, who had reconciled with Sigh after the 1993 rape.
But last summer, when they were estranged again, the saga took another turn. Sigh was convicted of raping his ex-wife again. The charges included violating a restraining order and even launching a kidnapping plot that included drawing a map so she could be captured while leaving work.
Now, the two are divorced, Sigh is in jail, and Patrick is a candidate for president, where he is already facing pressure from a women’s advocate who declared Patrick’s actions involving a convicted rapist “disqualifying.”
“Certainly, he is not responsible for what his family member did. But he is responsible for how he reacted to that,” said Michele Dauber, a Stanford University professor and activist.
Dauber, who led the successful recall of a California judge who issued a lenient sentence to a convicted Stanford rapist, now runs a super PAC called Enough is Enough that campaigns against candidates with problematic pasts, though she cautioned she was speaking only personally.
The criticism is somewhat dizzying since Patrick, a liberal Democrat, was viewed locally as an ally in fighting violence against women. His wife, Diane Patrick, was a survivor of spousal abuse in a previous marriage and became an outspoken advocate with a personal story and a steadfast husband by her side.
Patrick was stung when the news about his brother-in-law was first exposed by the Boston Herald during his campaign in 2006, and embittered by the personal revelations. When he initially ruled out a run for president last year, Patrick cited concern that the “cruelty of our elections process would ultimately splash back on people whom Diane and I love, but who hadn’t signed up for the journey.”
In a statement Friday, Patrick said: “Bernie Sigh’s impact on my family has been complex and painful for all of us. I love my sister and her children, and believe their chance to heal is best if left out of the public eye. But because of issues raised in a lawsuit filed against me as Governor, her experience is now part of the public record and it is important that the facts are clear.”
One local antiviolence advocate suggested Patrick’s involvement in the family dispute betrayed a blind spot.
“There’s often decisions made about how to handle specific offenders that are based on positional power,” said Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. She added that it seemed the Sex Offender Registry Board was trying to guard against preferential treatment for a relative of the governor and to prevent any sort of coverup.
“That is what we do want people to be doing,” Scaramella said, pointing to other examples like “the head of HR in a big company who knows that the big boss is doing things that are inappropriate. We need people to be willing to hold even people they know accountable in order to really change this.”
The legal dispute over the board member’s firing continues — and could feasibly go to trial early next year, though the state has moved for summary judgment.
Saundra Edwards, the former chair of the Sex Offender Registry Board, sued Patrick and the state in 2014, claiming retaliation and defamation in his comments to the media about her.
Though her claims of defamation by Patrick were dropped, her whistle-blower case remains active in Essex Superior Court. In it, she claims she “objected to, and refused to participate in a policy, practice, and precedent that spousal rape is not rape,” and says she “believed that such a policy, practice, and precedent posed a risk to public health and safety.”
Patrick said in a statement that Edwards was asked to resign because of her “unlawful interference” in Sigh’s case that threatened the integrity of the agency’s work.
“That demanded accountability,” Patrick said. He noted that the hearing officer received a settlement from the state for his treatment by the board.
“Survivors must be heard, believed and respected. My commitment to upholding their dignity, and uplifting solutions to eradicate violence and abuse, is unwavering,” he said. “So is my commitment to the law.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert