May 25, 2011
By Todd Wallack, Globe Staff
Massachusetts state agencies would be barred from silencing their employees as part of severance or settlement pacts unless they publicly explain why such restrictions are needed, under a budget proposal from Bruce E. Tarr, the Senate minority leader.
The Globe reported last month that at least 16 state agencies swore workers to secrecy as part of lucrative severance and settlement packages. Confidentiality clauses in some agreements barred the employees from discussing payments, while non-disparagement clauses prohibited the workers from saying anything negative about their agency or its executives.
But several state lawmakers and watchdogs condemned the secret payments last month. And last week, Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester, filed an amendment to the Senate budget that would bar any state agency from entering a contract with current or former workers barring them from talking about the agreement or their employer, unless the state publicly issues a detailed statement explaining why the language was necessary. The proposal says the statement must be made be publicly available within 24 hours of the time the contract, severance, or settlement agreement goes into effect.
“We need to make sure there is accountability and transparency with settlements involving state officials,” said Tarr. “It doesn’t seem like these types of agreements service the public interest.”
The amendment could be voted on later today. State Senators and their staff filed nearly 600 proposed amendments to the budget by the deadline last week, though only a portion of which will likely be included in the final budget. But another lawmaker praised the proposal.
“Senator Tarr and I don’t agree on much, but one thing we have always agreed on is transparency,” said James Eldridge, an Acton Democrat. “I think this is a good step toward creating more transparency.”
A spokesman for Governor Deval Patrick did not respond to requests for comments.
The Globe obtained copies of more than 150 settlement and severance agreements with state agencies under the Massachusetts public records law, and found more than half contained either a confidentiality or non-disparagement clause.
In most cases, agencies also withheld the names of the employees and other information that might identify them, citing the need to protect the workers’ privacy. In March, the Globe sued the Patrick administration and two other Massachusetts agencies in Suffolk Superior Court to obtain the names. That suit is still pending.
But not every worker agreed to sign contracts with such language. As the Globe reported earlier this month, former MBTA general manager Daniel Grabauskas refused to sign a pact to keep his $327,487 severance agreement confidential after he was forced to resign two years ago. But lawyers who’ve represented other state employees said agencies often insist on the language.