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889WVN #639: Former AD Cass cleared in court -- now what?

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  • waylandvoters1
    Mar 21, 2016
      Dear Wayland Voter,

      Nearly five months after being arrested in his Wayland home, former Athletic Director Stephen Cass was cleared of all charges in a March 17 trial that aired evidence of malice and incompetence by school and town officials.

      The failed prosecution stands as additional evidence of retaliation against Cass for calling attention to questionable and possibly illegal high school athletic practices.

      The outcome was the most humiliating result possible for the Town and the prosecutor: a directed verdict, meaning that the judged ruled the case too flawed to go to the jury. In Framingham District Court, Judge Jennifer Stark halted the trial Thursday afternoon with several witnesses yet to be heard.

      The Oct. 26 arrest and charges of felony larceny of a five-year-old laptop had drawn heavy public criticism and skepticism. Officials ignored appeals from the public to have the charges dismissed.

      In court, Cass’ attorney, Gerard Malone, echoed a theme voiced earlier by many citizens: “This is small-town, petty politics. The true intent of all of this was to arrest and embarrass Mr. Cass. This is retaliation that has bled over from the school to the police department.”

      Judge Stark overruled prosecution objections to that line of questioning as Malone elicited damning testimony from witnesses. The courtroom was filled, including an audience of Cass supporters.

      Arresting Officer Grilled

      Questioning the arresting officer, Detective Sgt. Jamie Berger, attorney Malone remarked at the surprising speed with which Berger had met with school officials on the morning of Monday, Oct. 26, then obtained a search warrant (though not an arrest warrant) from the court and arrived at Cass’ house by 11 a.m. with two squad cars and three other officers. Though Berger called his investigation “thorough,” he had failed to ascertain the value of the aging MacBook, which had a cracked case.

      The value was later determined from the insurance carrier to be $220, insufficient to support the charge of grand larceny. The charge was reduced to a misdemeanor before trial.

      Upon questioning, Berger acknowledged that the Police Department issued a press release and posted a mugshot of Cass on FaceBook. Boston TV and the Boston Globe covered the arraignment, something not seen in recent years with the possible exception of a 2011 murder case, the most serious crime in Wayland in a generation.

      When Malone asked why a photo would be posted on FaceBook, Berger said it was to be transparent. Judge Stark asked whether all arrests are posted on FaceBook. Berger cited social media use on earlier arrests. Then Malone said that since the Cass arrest there haven’t been FaceBook postings, not even for a recently arrested burglary suspect. That response drew audience noise that prompted the judge to call for silence.

      Berger testified that he pursued the search warrant and then arrested Cass without asking whether anyone had called Cass to ask about the laptop. Berger said there was bad blood between school officials and Cass.

      That bad blood has become well known in the nearly 10 months since Cass went public with allegations about questionable athletic activities that he had been trying to address without success. Three days after he detailed the allegations to Superintendent Paul Stein, he was told his contract wouldn’t be renewed.

      When Cass informed the School Committee in public meetings of the allegations, he became persona non grata to school officials. Stein issued a restraining order to keep him way from school property but didn’t specify any public safety threat.

      After many of Cass’ allegations were verified, Stein took action including unspecified disciplinary measures, presumably against coaches with whom Cass had clashed. School officials have adopted recommendations for change from a recent Northeastern University study.

      Assistant Superintendent Brad Crozier, who was asked by Superintendent Stein to recover the computer, testified that he hadn’t called Cass because of a previous exchange of words. In his public comments Cass hadn’t criticized Crozier, but did point out that contracts Crozier negotiated omitted several needed assistant positions and resulted in some coaching salaries far above those in peer towns.

      Malone asked Crozier whether he had thought about investigating other examples of missing property. Crozier indicated that none had been passed on to the Wayland police.

      As WVN reported after the arrest, aside from two somewhat generic emails from IT employees to Cass as he was departing his job in June, there is no evidence that the school system tried to recover the computer and no evidence that Cass received the emails. Cass has maintained from the beginning that an employee gave him permission in 2014 to keep a computer that was scheduled to be junked.

      Flawed Record Keeping

      Two IT employees were called to the stand. Under Malone’s questioning, testimony varied about how many computers Cass had been issued during his two years in Wayland, when they were assigned, and what type they were. One of the employees said that IT Director Leisha Simon had more information.

      Simon had been subpoenaed, but didn’t appear in court. When asked by WVN, Superintendent Stein replied, “Ms. Simon was issued a subpoena three days before the court date. She had a long standing commitment out of state.” The March 17 jury trial date had been set by the court on Dec. 18.

      A key element that must be proved to obtain a conviction is intent. As reported earlier, Cass never tried to hide the disputed computer and carried it in public, even to School Committee meetings where he gave public comment. He told WVN a few weeks ago that he would have returned the laptop if he had been asked, though he would have challenged the school’s account of its disposition.

      Prosecutor Emily Farley presented a simplistic view of the case: “They were missing one computer. It was the computer issued to Mr. Cass.” But, as observers of the Wayland school system know, hundreds of computers have been junked over the years, some have gone missing, and the school system’s general accounting practices and record keeping have been found to be flawed.

      By 4 p.m. on Thursday, Judge Stark had heard enough. She allowed a motion for a directed verdict, which Malone presented. Stark informed the jury that “the charge has been withdrawn” and thanked them for their service. The decision was greeted by restrained audience applause.

      The ordeal of Cass’ felony arrest was over. But Malone asked how his client, a former captain of the Yale soccer team and an MBA-holding longtime athletic administrator, could restore his reputation and employability.

      “This was all about revenge,” Cass told the MetroWest Daily News. “It was retaliation for me bringing up things that were wrong that were going on. This has put my life on hold.”

      Questions for School, Town Officials

      Many WVN readers, as well as residents of other towns, questioned and even ridiculed officials responsible for Cass’ departure and its aftermath. The trial brings those concerns into high relief.

      -- THE ARREST

      Police Chief Robert Irving told WVN shortly after the arrest that nobody had ordered it. That indicated Sgt. Berger as the person who decided on the arrest. Irving might not have anticipated the arrest. Berger testified that he had received a call from the chief the evening of Friday, Oct. 23 saying the school knew the location of a missing computer. On Monday morning Berger took the speedy actions described above after meeting at the high school with Crozier, Youth Officer Shane Bowles and two school IT employees.

      Does this comport with police policy? Will Berger be disciplined? Could other Wayland residents be arrested and charged with felonies after similarly cursory investigation?

      Does this comport with the standards and expectations of the Board of Selectmen, which hires the police chief, and Town Administrator Nan Balmer, who supervises the chief?

      The selectmen and the School Committee did nothing, in public at any rate, to deal with the Cass situation after the arrest. They appeared to be deaf to citizens asserting that nobody else would have been arrested over an old computer.

      In response to a citizen suggestion in early January that Superintendent Stein and Chief Irving meet quietly to discuss the option of telling the District Attorney the Town would not support the case, a town official with knowledge of the investigation was dismissive: “You don’t know the half of it.” We now know that officials’ confidence in the case was misplaced.

      Chief Irving was subpoenaed for the trial but didn’t appear. He told WVN he received the subpoena on Monday and notified both the prosecutor and defense attorney that he had a non-refundable ticket for a vacation flight to Florida.

      Of the outcome, Irving commented: “It is always disappointing when a case has an adverse result in court. That being said, I believe the detectives did an excellent job in their investigation and presenting the case.”

      -- ACTION BY TOWN OFFICIALS

      Asked for comment about the verdict, Superintendent Stein replied to WVN: “The court has settled the issue and, whatever the outcome, I believe that all parties involved are now well served by having closure on the matter.”

      Stein left it to his assistant, Crozier, to recover the computer. Delegation is routine, but the superintendent, whose compensation is in the neighborhood of $250,000 a year, is ultimately responsible for actions of subordinates. The trial provided strong evidence that subordinates failed at the simple task of recovering an old computer from a former employee who lives near the high school.

      Though Sgt. Berger didn’t ask Assistant Superintendent Crozier and others what they had done to retrieve the laptop, shouldn’t some school employees have thought to exercise common sense?

      Trial testimony indicated that Berger was aware of a climate of hostility and malice surrounding Cass. Is this the sort of culture that citizens should tolerate in a school system that boasts salaries among the highest in Massachusetts?

      Schools have a unique responsibility as public institutions to foster fairness and present appropriate role models. Do citizens believe officials should be accountable for meeting those standards?

      -- WHERE WAS COMMON SENSE?

      Some WVN readers have already asked what all this has cost taxpayers.

      The wages of the four police officers who were diverted from other duties on Oct. 26 exceeded the value of the laptop by the time Cass was driven to Framingham, booked and arraigned.

      How much has Wayland spent on legal advice related to the case? How much staff time has been diverted from serving students and other residents?

      What are the costs to Massachusetts taxpayers of the court proceedings?

      Comments to WVN since the verdict have not been kind to officials. They include speculation that officials deliberately prolonged the matter to keep Cass jobless and unemployable so that he would have no resources to file a whistleblower lawsuit. Some have suggested crowd-funding to finance a suit.

      The verdict caps a series of events that some see as a textbook opportunity for a litigator.

      In January a jury in Concord, N.H., awarded more than $31 million to a former Wal-Mart pharmacist who said she was fired in retaliation for reporting safety concerns about co-workers dispensing prescriptions. In Rhode Island the former athletic director in Cumberland has filed suit in federal court asserting that he was wrongfully terminated after expressing concerns that the town's sports fund-raising created unequal opportunities for female and minority athletes.

      -- WVN Staff

      ANNUAL TOWN MEETING UPDATE:

      Additional information links have been posted on the town website:
      http://www.wayland.ma.us/Pages/WaylandMA_Selectmen/ATM2016

      MEETINGS CALENDAR: Unless otherwise noted, meetings of governmental bodies take place in Wayland Town Building. For agendas, click on the calendar date, then on the name of boards/committees:
      http://www.wayland.ma.us/Pages/index

      Monday, March 21:
      Library Planning Committee, 6:15 p.m., 5 Concord Rd., Wayland Library
      Library Trustees, 6:15 p.m., 5 Concord Rd., Wayland Library
      Selectmen, 6:45 p.m. (also posted for 3/22 in case 3/21 is cancelled for weather)
      Finance Committee, 7 p.m.
      Personnel Board, 7 p.m.
      School Committee, 7 p.m.
      WRAP (Wayland Real Asset Planning), 7:30 p.m.

      Tuesday, March 22:
      Public Works, 7 p.m., 66 River Rd., DPW Facility
      Recreation, 7 p.m., 66 River Rd., DPW Facility
      Zoning Board of Appeals, 7 p.m.
      Planning Board, 7:30 p.m.
      Rivers Edge Advisory Committee, 7:30 p.m.

      Wednesday, March 23:
      Board of Health, 7 p.m.
      Wayland Housing Authority, 7 p.m., Bent Park Community Bldg.
      Recreation, 7:30 p.m.
      Moderator’s Forum, 7:30 p.m.

      Saturday, March 26:
      Library Planning Committee, 10 a.m., 5 Concord Rd., Wayland Library

      Monday, March 28:
      Selectmen’s Warrant Hearing for Annual Town Meeting, 7 p.m.

      ----------------------------------------------------------
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      Michael Short
      Editor