SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Local News

October 4, 2012

Lawyer: Penalty too severe

Former lieutenant's loss of pension an 'excessive fine,' his attorney says

PEABODY — By one estimate, the pension of former Peabody police Lt. Edward Bettencourt is worth $659,000, not including health benefits. His own lawyer puts the figure much higher, at more than $1 million.

And that, his lawyer argued yesterday, is too high a price to pay for what he characterized as “being curious and nosy.” It amounts to a violation of Bettencourt’s right against “excessive fines” under the Eighth Amendment, attorney Paul Hynes said during a hearing yesterday in Peabody District Court.

But state pension officials beg to differ, saying that Bettencourt’s actions — using birth dates and Social Security numbers of 21 fellow police officers to create phony accounts that let him see their Civil Service exam scores — were a “violation of the public trust.” They contend that Bettencourt should forfeit his pension under a state law that calls for such a sanction when a public employee is found guilty of misconduct relating to his or her job.

Lawyers for both sides were trying to convince Peabody District Court Judge Matthew Nestor during a hearing yesterday morning to see things their way. The hearing comes in the wake of an Appeals Court ruling that Bettencourt’s misconduct was related to his job as a police officer, triggering the forfeiture statute. The Appeals Court left open the question of whether the penalty was too severe.

Nestor said he would issue a decision within one to two weeks.

Bettencourt, a 26-year veteran of the Peabody Police Department, was found guilty in 2008 of 21 counts of misuse of a computer system, charges that stemmed from an incident while Bettencourt was working on Christmas night in 2004.

Bettencourt was the shift commander that evening. While on duty, he went online, to the state’s Civil Service website, where he proceeded to enter the personal information of 20 Peabody colleagues and a Salem officer, creating accounts that allowed him to view their Civil Service test scores online.

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