Boston Globe: Lawmakers seek end to severance gag orders

By Todd Wallack Globe Staff / April 27, 2011

Several state lawmakers have called on Governor Deval Patrick’s administration and state agencies to stop asking former employees to sign “gag orders’’ as part of lucrative severance and settlement agreements.

The Globe reported Sunday that more than half of large severance and settlement agreements with state workers contain either confidentiality or nondisparagement clauses. They bar workers from talking about the terms of their deals or criticizing their employers.

Critics say the agreements could be used to cover up questionable spending, muffle legitimate criticism of state government agencies, or hide wrongdoing by public officials.

“A person should be able to speak out and bring bad practices to light,’’ said state Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who has filed several bills to make more state information public.

The Globe obtained more than 150 severance and settlement agreements through public records requests. In most cases, state agencies blacked out the names of the workers who received the payments. And the agreements themselves often contain few, if any, details about what motivated the payments.

State Representative Antonio Cabral, who has also sponsored several bills to broaden the state’s public records law, said the Legislature may need to step in if agencies continue to bar workers from speaking out.

“They should not be doing those sorts of gag orders,’’ said Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat. “If you are a public employee, it should be public information.’’

State officials defended the agreements, saying all the workers agreed to the restrictions.

“These provisions — and all others in the agreements — are negotiated among the parties involved and are not uncommon in employment-related disputes,’’ said Mark Reilly, Patrick’s chief legal counsel.

Some of the settlements appear to resolve employment disputes.

For instance, a highway worker received $170,000 this year after he said that he was taunted by co-workers who thought he was gay. And a nursing assistant negotiated a $150,000 settlement in 2008 for a lawsuit against the University of Massachusetts Medical School after she said she was sexually harassed.

As part of the deals, the workers were barred from alerting the news media to the payments.

Other agreements provided severance to select employees. The MBTA signed at least five confidential separation agreements — including a $327,487 pact with general manager Daniel Grabauskas two years ago — barring former workers from talking about their deals. The MBTA also withheld details of Grabauskas’s severance.

Separately, the University of Massachusetts paid a total of more than $1 million in extra severance to at least 13 workers who were laid off at President Jack Wilson’s office over the past two years, including one who received $124,000.

But one former state employee who was asked to sign a confidentiality and nondisparagement clause as part of a legal settlement refused, saying it would violate his right to free speech.

“I’m not going to sign something that is illegal,’’ said David L. Smith, a retired tax examiner at the Department of Revenue. He had filed grievances with the agency over a promotion and other issues.

Instead of signing the pact, Smith sued the agency. After six years, he said, the Revenue Department wound up agreeing in 2007 to give him the same amount of money, plus pay part of his legal fees, and drop the confidentiality and nondisparagement restrictions. Smith estimated the total settlement, including legal fees, was worth about $30,000.

Senate Republican leader Bruce E. Tarr said his office is considering drafting legislation to try to limit the use of confidential agreements.

“It’s certainly inconsistent with the goal that has been stated time and time again on Beacon Hill that we ought to have more transparency,’’ said Tarr, who serves on the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.

Spokesmen for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray declined to comment.

The Globe has sued the Patrick administration and two other Massachusetts agencies to obtain the names of workers who received severance and settlement payments.

On Monday, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders declined to immediately issue an injunction ordering the state to release the names, saying the issue should be further argued in court.

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