Superior Court Clerk is Subject of I-Team Investigative Report

April 12, 2012
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A whistleblower and an anonymous source – both Suffolk Superior Court employees – told the Record this week that working conditions at the court have become so stressful and difficult due to management by Criminal Court Clerk Maura Hennigan, that a criminal was accidentally allowed to be bailed out of jail and sent free even though he was scheduled to be arraigned on murder charges this past Monday morning.

Suffolk Superior Court serves the most serious cases emerging from Chelsea, Revere, Winthrop and Boston. It is one of the busiest courts in the state and is headed up administratively by Hennigan – who was first elected in 2006 – who staunchly rejected many recent allegations about her style of management and her work ethic during a phone interview this week, tagging it all up to election year politicking.

“The alleged murderer is now on the street,” said the whistleblower. “Now they have to go find the guy on the street – not a drug dealer – an alleged murderer. Who knows if he’s even still around? Everyone’s rushed and scared and stressed in that court. Mistakes are being made because we’re so shorthanded, but we’re not shorthanded because people left of their own free will. They’ve been forced out for political reasons by [Hennigan]. It’s a mistake made because you’re put under pressure to produce and it’s her fault they are shorthanded.”

The anonymous court employee also was familiar with the same situation – saying it has made waves within the office this week during the aftermath of an eye-opening I-Team report on Boston’s Channel 4 that showed Hennigan walking her dog and conducting campaign activities during work hours. The report alleged that Hennigan routinely didn’t show up for work, though she adamantly disputes the report.

“If I’m working on 18 subpoenas and they give me another 48 subpoenas to do, then I’m going to get backed up and in the climate at that office, no one will help anyone else,” said the worker. “If I can’t get to the subpoenas, then they’ll be late and everything gets backed up and the pressure mounts. They have to move everything back, court dates and hearings, because the records aren’t there. People end up making mistakes because you are so frazzled, hurried and stressed. This guy was let out on $2,500 bail. He was supposed to be arraigned on Monday for murder. Of course he’s not coming back and he’s supposed to be held for murder charges.”

Hennigan said that the situation did occur, but she said such mistakes had to do with a three-year hiring freeze in the state court system, as well as a number of existing employees in Suffolk who have retired, not returned to work for legitimate reasons or who were tapped for other duties in the court system.

“Mistakes are made because we have a hiring freeze that’s been in place for three years,” said Hennigan. “Every time I have asked to be able to fill positions, it has gone unanswered…I have been talking to the Trial Court for years now, telling them this is going to happen some day. We deal with serious crimes here. People are busier, and if you’re asking them to do this many things, mistakes can be made. I have been holding my breath, hoping this wouldn’t happen. What can you do? You have to do the best you can.”

A spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office confirmed that a mistake in the courthouse did allow the man to go free on bail, despite a murder indictment and impending arraignment.

The two sources and the DA spokesman indicated that the man, Jean Torres Vargas, had been held on an aggravated assault charge from 2010 for allegedly kicking a man in the head many times and hitting him in the head with cement in East Boston. The victim eventually died in December, and murder charges were recently leveled against Torres Vargas after an indictment on March 14th. The administrative error – which ended up being a typo in his name – prevented anyone from knowing about a warrant for murder charges. Consequently, he was allowed out on a $2,500 bail on March 24th and was a no-show at the murder arraignment this Monday morning.

No one knows where he is at now.

“He’s in the wind now,” said the DA spokesman about the defendant’s whereabouts.

“The clerk who did this is devastated about it as we all are,” said Hennigan. “That’s a human error, a typo.”

Both sources told the Journal that they were and are supporters of Hennigan’s former opponent. They said that they both had worked at the court for more than a decade and had served under previous clerks. However, both indicated that neither they, nor many who have left the court since Hennigan’s arrival, have experienced this kind of divisive environment before.

They said the problems at the court were more severe than the allegations made in the I-Team report and that Hennigan doesn’t show up for work. That report also chronicled a state inquiry about whether Hennigan was using court clerks to stuff envelopes and work on campaign tasks during court hours – a matter that was exposed by the whistleblower and reported to the judiciary, according to the I-Team report.

Hennigan said she could not comment on the inquiry because it is under investigation in an official capacity. The allegations specify that clerks were directed to work on campaign tasks by Hennigan during work hours at the courthouse.

“I can’t comment on the inquiry until it’s over,” said Hennigan. “Believe me, I want to comment, but I can’t. When it’s over, I will be glad to comment.”

The two sources allege that Hennigan has bred a political culture that has forced 16 employees to leave since she started – most of them who are not her supporters and some who had been at the court for nearly 30 years.

That, both said, has led to the shortages that they allege cause mistakes such as is detailed above.

“She is not in work and does not know what she’s doing,” said the whistleblower. “Five and a half years after her first election and she doesn’t know anything about what’s going on in the court and doesn’t know anything about the law and hasn’t tried to learn. At least 16 employees have left. They left because they couldn’t work here anymore. The people who didn’t back her, she was very, very mean and vindictive to. One clerk left for a district court position after being here 25 years or more…Suffolk Superior Court is the pinnacle. You’re a top-notch clerk if you’re a clerk magistrate there. Why would you choose to go to a little district court after 25 years at the top court in the state?”

Added the anonymous source, “There is a double standard in everything she does. There are different sign-in sheets for her people. Everything is different for her people than for us regular workers…The atmosphere could be cut with a knife. I don’t think the clerk should be an elected position. It should be appointed by the judiciary. Everyone has filed grievances in there with the union and that never happened before. The union has been great for us because they know all of this.”

Hennigan said, “I can’t control who files a grievance with their union. Just because someone files a grievance doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Hennigan staunchly disagreed with the whole assertion that she has created such a hostile environment, saying that the political culture has come upon her during election year politicking by her former and potential opponent Bobby Dello Russo.

“This is an election year,” she said. “There’s a person in this office running against me as they did before. I hoped people could put things from the election behind us and I asked them to do that. That didn’t occur and sadly the past six years he’s been campaigning.

“The political atmosphere doesn’t help and it’s not something I created,” she continued. “If I was vindictive politically, I wouldn’t have done many things that are on the record, such as initially hiring a first assistant that had endorsed my opponent…It’s sad to me they’re bringing politics into this office. When they create this venomous atmosphere, it’s really sad.”

Countered the whistleblower, “People, if they were in this office, would be absolutely horrified at what she’s done in here. It is the most hostile working environment you could imagine.”

Sidebar –

The I-Team report that aired last week showed dazzling pictures of Hennigan walking her dog during what appears to be working hours and campaigning during a workday. However, Hennigan said there is more to the story and she wasn’t given time to explain fully.

“I am at work more often than not, and I’m at work right now,” she said on Tuesday. “The day they came to film my office for the report, I was actually out at my cousin’s funeral. When I’m not there, there are people in my office who call the TV station. If they call the TV station every time you’re out, you’ll appear to be out 100 percent of the time. It’s politics and it’s not fair, but it’s what I signed up for.”

Hennigan also said that when the I-Team caught her campaigning during a workday, they neglected to mention that it was Election Day – the March 6th Primary.

“That was an election day,” she said. “They didn’t mention that. I have taken Election Day off for years. That’s what we as elected officials do on Election Day. They didn’t mention any of that.”

The report also criticized Hennigan for filming her cable TV show during working hours on Tuesdays.

“That’s part of my community outreach and it’s a commitment I made to my constituents,” she said. “That show pre-dates me. John Nucci did that show when he was the clerk before me.”

In the end, she said she felt she would be cleared of the inquiry and that she was not the person that others are making her out to be.

“I’ve been in this business (of politics) for 30 years now, and I’ve never had an issue like this – ever,” she said.

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