An effort by The Enterprise to shed light on a personnel investigation surrounding misuse of public funds at the Brockton Parking Authority led to the newspaper gaining access to settlement deals reached by the city this year which add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

BROCKTON – At first, the city said it didn’t have any settlement agreements this year to share, when it responded to a public records request made in September by The Enterprise.

“Initially, it should be noted that the city is not in possession of any settlement agreements entered into this year between any employees or former employees,” wrote Brockton City Solicitor Philip Nessralla, in a letter to the newspaper on Oct. 19.

But, it turns out, the city has 10. And they add up to more than $235,000 in direct settlement payments.

When The Enterprise questioned the response and pressed forward with the public records request, the city changed its answer, and has since produced several settlement deals reached this year, including two with employees who made claims of discrimination.

“The city acknowledges that it has 10 settlement agreements in its possession,” Nessralla wrote in another statement to The Enterprise on Oct. 31.

The Enterprise previously reported on a separation agreement reached by the city in July with former parking garage supervisor John Hefler. That deal came in connection with a costly taxpayer-funded personnel investigation over whether he was misusing public resources for his own personal gain. The city initially provided The Enterprise with a separation agreement it reached with Hefler – the settlement provides him a pension in return for his resignation and agreement not to seek reinstatement.

But the public records request made by The Enterprise on Sept. 21 called for all settlement agreements reached by the city in 2018, not just Hefler’s. The newspaper had to file an appeal with the state to get Hefler’s agreement when the city didn’t respond to the initial request. In that appeal, the newspaper again asked for any other settlement agreements, especially since it was aware of least one other reached earlier in the year with a Brockton police officer.

On Oct. 31, the city provided The Enterprise with nine settlement agreements reached this year, on top of the Heffler separation agreement, for a total of 10.  Even though two of those newly obtained agreements came uncensored, three were denied completely, and three others were heavily censored. In doing so, the city said it was invoking privacy exemptions related to the disciplinary records and medical information of the employees who were involved.

Scroll to the bottom of the story to view a full copy of the city of Brockton’s Oct. 31 response to The Enterprise, which was seeking records of settlements reached this year by the city with employees and former employees.

The two unredacted settlement agreements obtained by The Enterprise include one reached during the summer by the city and a longtime Brockton police officer Francisco Baez, who filed a federal lawsuit in 2016, claiming that three ranking officers fabricated an assault charge against him. The assault charge, he claimed, resulted in unwarranted disciplinary action and was motivated by racial animosity.

The lawsuit alleges that Sgt. George Khoury falsely claimed that Baez bumped into the ranking officer in a September 2013 incident in the Brockton Police Department’s booking room. The confrontation was caught on surveillance video, and Baez argued in court that the footage proves he never bumped into Khoury. Baez also claimed in the lawsuit that, during his employment dating back to 1996, Khoury previously used the N-word to refer to black people and made other derogatory racial remarks. Baez is black and Hispanic, while Khoury is white.

A copy of the settlement agreement obtained by The Enterprise shows that the agreement provides Baez with a $65,000 payment. The payment comes in exchange for Baez agreeing to drop his claims against Khoury, the police department and two other ranking officers who backed up the sergeant’s version of events: Capt. Emanuel Gomes, who was chief at the time, and Capt. Wayne Sargo.

The settlement states that the defendants in the lawsuit – Khoury, Gomes, Sargo and the police department itself – are not accepting or admitting to any of Baez’s claims of racism or wrongdoing.

“The aforementioned parties each expressly deny any and all liability and/or wrongdoing whatsoever,” the settlement agreement states.

Reached on Friday, Khoury declined to comment on the settlement agreement, or the claims Baez made against him, citing advice from his lawyer. But Khoury told The Enterprise that he has a clean record.

“I have never had a disciplinary action against me during my 25 years on this job,” Khoury said. “The only thing you’ll find on my file is letters of commendation and thank you letters.”

An effort to reach a lawyer representing Baez was unsuccessful this week. Baez remains employed by the city of Brockton. Baez continued working for police department while pursuing the lawsuit, and after the settlement was reached on Aug. 31.

Another settlement obtained by The Enterprise was related to a claim of age discrimination made by a former city employee in 2009. Karl Liljegren, who worked for the engineering division at Brockton City Hall, but lost his job about eight years ago, received $35,000 through a settlement agreement reached in March of this year. The payment was made to Liljegren in exchange for him dropping his age discrimination complaint against the city, initially made to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and then brought to court a couple years ago.

Again, that Liljegren settlement agreement includes a provision stating that the city does not admit to guilt or wrongdoing in response to the discrimination claims.

Nessralla, the city solicitor, said Liljegren was “up there” in age, but that had nothing to do with the elimination of his position. Nessralla said Liljegren was “competent in what he did,” conducting title examinations, but there was no more funding for the position. Instead, the city outsourced title examination services, which was a more sustainable expense compared to maintaining the full-time position, Nessralla said.

“The funding was just not there any further to pay for that position,” Nessralla said. “On the occasion when we would need a title examination, it would be easier to outsource it to a title examiner.”

Liljegren’s settlement agreement also calls for confidentiality from both parties about the terms of the agreement, unless they are “required by law” to disclose the information.

The Enterprise was able to obtain the settlement agreement through the state’s public records law, for which there is court precedent when it comes to settlement agreements reached by public entities using taxpayer funds.

The city of Brockton initially tried to claim that the settlement agreements were protected from release by a personnel records exemption in the public records law.

A public records expert previously told The Enterprise that a Massachusetts Superior Court ruling in 2013 – in the case of Globe Newspaper Company v. Executive Office of Adminstration and Finance – set precedent for settlement agreements to be considered public records that are not protected by exemptions in the public record law. Instead, the court ruled in favor of the public’s right to know how their government is spending taxpayer money on such agreements, stating that the names of parties involved and the content of agreements can be shared without disclosing privacy-exempt information like their telephone numbers, home addresses and other sensitive personal information.

Another four agreements released by the city, although heavily redacted and blocking out the employee names, were related to workers compensation claims made by employees for injuries and medical issues picked up while on the job. One was a lump sum payment of $26,005, in an agreement reached in March with another unnamed employee. Another workers comp agreement was reached in April, providing a $35,000 lump sum to the unidentified employee. A third settlement agreement was for a lump sum of $32,500, agreed to on July 3 this year. And the last lump sum for workers compensation, agreed to in July, was $42,500 for another unidentified employee.

Responding to questions about the settlements reached this year by the city in order to resolve discrimination claims, the city solicitor said he considers a number of factors before deciding to settle. That calculation goes beyond whether the claimant was truly wronged by the city or one of its agents, Nessralla said.

“I assess a number of factors, irrespective of who’s right and who’s wrong,” said Nessralla, reached on Friday morning. “These cases can go on and on and on. The legal fees pile up. In the end, even if you win sometimes, you look at the costs to get there, and you have to assess whether that particular battle was worth it. In these cases, I found that closing it out by way of settlement, where both parties get on with their life, was a better way to go about it. … A resolution is not intended to indicate admission of liability or responsibility for the allegation. It’s just a step forward to bringing it to a conclusion.”

Look below to view a full copy of the city of Brockton’s Oct. 31 response to The Enterprise, which was seeking records of settlements reached this year by the city with employees and former employees.

 



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