Quest for “Marty,” pizza dinner add up to big legal bills for Southborough, Mass.

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By Richard Lodge, editor, MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass.

What started as a quest by Southborough town officials to identify an anonymous online critic named “Marty,” evolved into a secret probe of eight town employees who met after work at a pizza restaurant last September.

Early in May, Southborough selectmen publicly exonerated eight present and former employees, including Town Administrator Jean Kitchen, Assistant Town Administrator Vanessa Hale, former Town Planner Vera Kolias and Public Works superintendent Karen Galligan. The eight were investigated after selectmen received a complaint from the former assistant town clerk about comments allegedly made about then-interim Police Chief Jane Moran at an after-work pizza dinner at Uno in Westborough last September. Moran was subsequently named permanent police chief in November.

The complaint reportedly involved comments made “in the presence of non-town employees who the subject of the comment has to deal with and also in the presence of a person who was competing for a position.”

The complaint to selectmen spawned the probe, which entailed the town hiring outside lawyers. The probe, in turn, prompted several of the town employees under investigation to hire their own lawyers.

The employees first learned they were under investigation when they were called to an executive session with selectmen on Oct. 22. 2009. At that closed-door meeting, interim Chief Moran accused the employees of trying to undermine her, according to several people at the meeting.

On May 10, Hingham attorney James Lampke, who was hired by the town to look into what was discussed at the gathering at Uno, released the report of his investigation, exonerating the eight employees. Days earlier, after a four-hour closed-door meeting, selectmen announced the eight employees had been cleared after the probe.

The MetroWest Daily News has filed a public records request for minutes of that executive session since, under the Open Meeting Law, it would appear the reason to keep the records of the discussion secret has passed.  The request for minutes was hand-delivered on Friday, May 14, and the town has ten business days to respond.

The Daily News also filed a public records request with Southborough selectmen seeking a breakdown of legal expenses for the town relating to the probe. Assistant Town Manager Vanessa Hale told the newspaper it could see redacted copies of the legal bills, funneled through Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano, but the charge would be more than $200.

“Town policy dictates that the charge for a records request is based upon the hourly rate made by the lowest paid employee capable of completing the requested task,” Hale told the Daily News. “Since no one other than Aldo (Cipriano, the town counsel) can redact the bills, the charge you’re seeing is what he charges per hour for his work.”

Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office said this week an attorney will be assigned to look into the newspaper’s complaint about the cost cited for copies of the legal bills.

The newspaper’s request is for legal bills from Cipriano and two outside lawyers, Barry Bachrach and Lampke, who investigated the pizza dinner discussions and an earlier investigation to uncover the identity of “Marty,” an online poster who Southborough selectmen said wrote inaccurate comments on a local blog regarding the hiring of Moran as police chief.

 In April, the Daily News reviewed redacted copies of Bachrach’s legal bills for the unsuccessful search for “Marty’s” identity, which showed the attorney billed the town more than $3,000 for the work. Copies of the bills were obtained by Southborough resident Al Hamilton, who made his own public records request for bills related to the “Marty” investigation.

The Daily News also obtained a copy from a Personnel Board member of an invoice from Lampke. That bill showed charges to the town, just for the month of February, of $2,315 for “personnel issues.” But until copies of all legal bills are made available to the newspaper, it’s impossible to report the total cost of outside legal work to Southborough taxpayers.

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