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Judges dole out $2M in hush money...and itís your taxes!
By Maggie Mulvihill
Sunday, April 9, 2006 - Updated: 02:28 AM EST

State trial court officials - already under investigation over their handling of tens of millions of dollars - doled out nearly $2 million in secret payments since 2002 to settle legal claims, including allegations of workplace discrimination and federal civil rights violations, state records show.

    Among those who have obtained taxpayer-funded settlements is a Framingham District Court clerk whose male boss in 2000 hit her with his cane, pulled her hair, dropped paper clips down her shirt, squirted her with water and once choked her ďlike a rag doll,Ē court records show.

    Others include a payment to the current chief of the stateís probation office, who sued after he was locked up in 2002 by a Brighton District Court judge for contempt of court, and a Roxbury District Court worker who was paid $15,000 to settle a discrimination claim against the courtís then-presiding justice, records show.

    The 51 settlements include a number of other claims for discrimination, raising questions about how carefully trial court officials are paying attention to those types of complaints lodged by workers.

    ďThe issue is the trial court successfully and properly monitoring employees so they donít have to pay out these kinds of figures,Ē said Boston employment attorney Kevin G. Powers, who has litigated cases against the trial court. ďAny amount of money paid out for discrimination claims is a waste of taxpayer money because discrimination shouldnít happen.Ē

    The $1.8 million in settlements came from a taxpayer-funded account used last year to pay $250,000 to two Plymouth County Juvenile Court employees who were sexually harassed by Judge Robert J. Murray.

    The women, like most other claimants in the past five years, were required by trial court officials to sign confidentiality agreements in order to be paid.

    Trial court officials already have come under fire for spending decisions after the Herald reported in January they spent $63 million on a computer system that operates in just two courts statewide. Those reports triggered a review by the state Auditorís office, which is ongoing.

    The Herald also reported taxpayers funded $18 million in renovations to the brand new Edward W. Brooke Courthouse to pacify the then-head of the politically powerful Boston Municipal Court, who wanted to relocate there.

    Those reports set off an investigation by the state Inspector Generalís office, which also is ongoing.

    Attorneys who have dealt with the trial court said it could avoid a lot of the payments by better managing its work force to ensure laws arenít being broken and employees are dealt with fairly.

    The management of the trial court was the focus of a blistering 92-page report issued in 2003 by a committee headed by the Rev. J. Donald Monan, former president of Boston College.

    ďIíve never seen a place with worse personnel practices than the trial court system,Ē said Kevin Preston, local chief negotiator for the National Association of Government Employees.

    Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management of the trial court, declined to be interviewed. Through his spokeswoman, Joan Kenney, he said the trial court has taken remedial action, including termination, against a number of employees for workplace violations, but declined to name them.

    Kenney also said the trial court has paid out $1.3 million in 47 settlements since 2002, though records at the state comptrollerís office show 51 settlements totaling more than $1.8 million. Asked for an explanation for the discrepancy, Kennedy declined comment.