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Secrecy for legal settlements in Mass. violates public trust

In the private sector, confidential settlements are routine. Silence is the price of hitting the jackpot.

In the public sector, where taxpayers are footing the bill, secrecy is harder to justify. Yet in Massachusetts, it’s become the norm in cases involving sexual harassment, discrimination, or managerial wrongdoing. According to a recent Globe report, nearly 100 workers were collectively paid more than $5 million in severance and settlement agreements negotiated by state officials and Massport over the past six years. The Patrick administration fought to keep them confidential; it took a four-year legal battle for the Globe to get access to the names of workers who received at least $10,000.

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The state argued that it kept the recipients’ identities secret to protect them. It’s more likely, the Globe investigation suggests, that state agencies hoped to protect themselves by avoiding bad publicity. Many payments went to senior executives who were given extra severance when they exited. For instance, Matthew Amorello, the former chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, received $181,515 after he was pushed out in 2006 by then-governor Mitt Romney. Many details of Amorello’s deal were released when he left. Yet the Patrick administration blacked out Amorello’s name from relevant documents and wouldn’t release the final estimate for how much he received until the Globe won its court battle.

In other cases, officials apparently wanted to put embarrassing employment disputes behind them, cover up mistakes, and avoid setting precedents that other workers could use to their advantage.

Unfortunately, state and local agencies have grown accustomed to ignoring the public’s need to know, argues Jim Stergios, director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that pushes for open records. Officials regularly blow off statutory requirements that information be made public; they stonewall legitimate requests, charge exorbitant fees, and make needless redactions.

When public money is being used to settle employment disputes, the public has the right to know why. The desire to avoid public embarrassment is no excuse to abuse the public trust.

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