SALEM — The former executive director of the Sex Offender Registry Board, forced out of her job in 2014 by then-Gov. Deval Patrick over the agency's handling of his brother-in-law's status as a sex offender, has filed a $2 million lawsuit against the state.
Jeanne L. Holmes of Brockton joins her former boss, ex-SORB Chairwoman Saundra Edwards, in suing the state over their termination from the agency over what Patrick claimed was their interference in the issue of whether Bernard Sigh, convicted of spousal rape in California, was required to register as a sex offender after moving to Massachusetts.
Edwards, the former chairwoman of the Salem-based agency, filed suit in December 2014 against both Patrick and the state. The counts against Patrick, including defamation, were eventually dismissed following a lengthy legal battle over whether the governor at the time had an absolute privilege to make the public remarks about her firing.
In a complaint filed Tuesday in Salem Superior Court, Holmes names the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as defendant and alleges that her firing was retaliation for her efforts to ensure that all SORB hearing officers were trained in the laws concerning "like" offenses.
Her lawyer, Salem attorney Thomas Delaney, said in the complaint that Holmes was simply performing her statutorily-mandated duties "to protect the public from dangerous sex offenders and to assist law enforcement in protecting their communities from the danger of recidivism posed by sex offenders."
At the center of the case is Sigh, who, after serving a sentence for what the state of California called "spousal rape," reconciled with Patrick's sister and moved to Massachusetts in 1995, a year before the Sex Offender Registry was created.
In 2006, Sigh's past became known. Subsequently, SORB informed Sigh that "spousal rape" was the equivalent of a standard rape charge in Massachusetts and that therefore he would have to register as a Level 1 (low risk) offender. Sigh asked for a hearing, arguing that he was not required to register.
Initially, SORB board member Shawn Jenkins, was assigned to handle the Sigh matter, according to Holmes' suit.
Then, for reasons that remain unknown, a hearing officer, A.J. Paglia, took over the case. His supervisor at the time told Paglia to wait until an opinion from the Attorney General on the question of whether the crimes of spousal rape and rape were equivalent.
However, Paglia began a hearing, then issued a verbal decision that Sigh would not have to register.
Two months later, Patrick appointed Edwards as chairwoman of the board; she in turn hired Holmes, a veteran Plymouth County prosecutor, in 2008 to serve as executive director.
When she started, Holmes discovered that SORB was not in compliance with certain laws and that "staff morale was very low." Edwards and Holmes were expected to engineer a "turn-around" for the agency.
At that point, the situation with Sigh and Paglia had also escalated, with Paglia's direct supervisor citing him for "insubordination" for having held the Sigh hearing and issuing a decision despite being told to wait.
In May 2008, Edwards and Holmes agreed to a meeting with Paglia, where they both explained the elements of the crime of rape, and that a man can be guilty of raping his wife.
However, under the existing policies in place, the decision stood. That's when Edwards began attempting to develop an emergency regulation that would allow for the correction of any errors of law made by a hearing officer.
Holmes was asked to coordinate training for all SORB staff on the legal elements of Massachusetts sex crimes.
Paglia, however, resigned rather than complete the training, the suit says, and filed a lawsuit. While Holmes was initially listed as a defendant, she was dropped from the case.
Shortly after Paglia and the state reached a $60,000 settlement, and while Patrick was in Europe, in September 2014, Holmes was called to a meeting and told that Patrick had decided to replace Edwards, and that the new chair would be bringing in her own choice as executive director. Holmes was placed on paid leave, but no explanation was given.
Then, the following week, Patrick returned from his trip. Asked by reporters why he was replacing Edwards and Holmes, Patrick said "the final straw" was the Paglia settlement and accused Holmes and Edwards of "maybe unlawful" pressure on him to change his decision in his brother-in-law's case.
In her lawsuit, Holmes says she never attempted to influence a hearing officer and never tried to force him to change his decision — though she agreed with Edwards that the agency's "credibility and reputation were seriously damaged" by Paglia's decision "that in essence, rape was not rape if the victim of the crime was the attacker's spouse."
She spent the next three months on suspension, and was then fired.
Delaney, in the complaint, said the firing was the result of Patrick's "wrongful, personal interest in retaliating against, and punishing," Holmes.
While Holmes is currently working for the Department of Correction as an attorney, her termination from SORB was, the suit alleges, an effort to deprive her of a pending raise and bonus, as well as her ability to receive her full pension and payment for unused sick time.
The suit seeks $2 million in damages.
Delaney did not respond to a message seeking comment on the complaint.
A spokesman at the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security said the agency could not discuss pending litigation or personnel matters.
While most civil lawsuits must be filed within three years of a disputed issue, certain types of civil disputes, including cases involving contracts, have a longer statute of limitations.
The remainder of Edwards' lawsuit against the state is still pending, and is currently scheduled to be back in court on July 11 for a final pre-trial conference.
Sigh, meanwhile, is awaiting trial, currently scheduled for next week, in Norfolk County on new allegations of rape, kidnapping, harassment, witness intimidation, stalking and other counts, more than a quarter of a century after his California conviction.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.