Hingham spent at least $18,000 last year investigating a harassment claim that eventually led the town to pay an employee $86,000 to quit and keep quiet about the investigation, according to invoices obtained by The Patriot Ledger.
The invoices, which cover an 8-month period last year, are part of a batch of documents released under a public records request that shed new light on a settlement agreement that town officials had worked hard to keep secret, even including language in it that described its confidentially as “essential.” Officials have not commented publicly about the settlement — which also bars them from speaking about it — and a copy of the document provided to The Patriot Ledger last month spring was redacted so as to remove all references to the people and issues involved.
Rumors about the settlement had circulated in Hingham for months before the Ledger reported on it, reaching their largest audience in April when a resident, Russell Reeves, addressed them during budget discussions at a town meeting held in the high school gymnasium. In a speech that was broad cast on Hingham’s community television station, Reeves said at the meeting, that the settlement involved a fire department employee who complained that she had been sexually harassed by a superior and compared it to other attempts to silence women that have been gained attention amid the #metoo movement.
The latest documents obtained by the Patriot Ledger show that the settlement was the result of a months-long investigation into a claim made under the town’s anti-harassment policy. They includes invoices submitted by an investigator — Jean Haertl of Framingham-based Safety and Respect at Work, LLC — who spent more than 120 hours between April and December 2017 looking into what the documents described as a “confidential matter.”
Haertl charged $200 per hour for her services and $95 per hour for travel, racking up bills totaling of $18,418.75 by the end of the year. Her work included calling and meeting with town personnel, reviewing documents and transcribing notes.
The town has refused to release a report compiled by Haertl after her investigation, saying it is prevented from doing so by a state law requiring harassment claims to be kept confidential. In a letter explaining its decision not to release the report, the town said confidentiality in such cases “is an important part of encouraging people to bring issues forward regardless of the merits of any particular complaint.”
The invoices indicate that Haertl finished her work with some final calls and emails on Dec. 15, four days before selectmen met in a closed-door meeting to discuss a potential settlement agreement. Elsewhere in Hingham Town Hall that night, members of the town’s advisory committee were asked to approve the transfer of $86,500 to pay for it.
There was “significant discussion” about the transfer request, according to official notes from the meeting, with some members balking at being asked to approve the transfer without explanation. It was ultimately approved unanimously and Lucy Hancock, the chairman of the town’s advisory, sent a text message to Tom Mayo, the town administrator, and Mary Power, then the chairman of the board of selectmen, shortly before 11 to let them know that she had “adhered to the confidentiality rule,” according to screenshots included in the newly released documents.
But the documents also show that at least one member of the committee remained uneasy about the settlement. In an email exchange between Nicole Raphaelson and Hancock the following day, Raphaelson said she had woken up needing reassurance “that we weren’t in some way condoning bad behavior the way Fox news did with its secret settlements for Bill O’Reilly,” referring to a series of settlement agreements requiring women who accused the former conservative television of sexual assault to stay silent or give up the money they were paid.
“I don’t think you would have made the recommendation if it were that kind of situation but I guess I would like confirmation that we haven’t approved a transfer for something that could embarrass us if it ever became public and maybe could have some kind of note in the meetings with this reassurance,” Raphaelson continued in the email. “I don’t know… what do you think?”
Hancock replied with a single sentence that afternoon: “We believe there is nothing about this settlement that could cause embarrassment to the Town, the (Board of Selectmen) or the Advisory Committee.”
Mayo, Power and Hancock could not be reached Monday. Raphaelson said in an email that she did not have anything to “add to the record.”
Under the terms of the settlement approved by selectmen that night, the unnamed employee agreed to resign in exchange for a lump-sum payment of $86,500 minus payroll deductions. The agreement also included a confidentiality agreement that “prohibits any and all forms of communication or transmission to any third party, including any written, spoken, electronic or any other form of communication.” The employee agreed to repay the $86,500 if he or she violated the provision.
After receiving a heavily redacted copy of the settlement under a public records request last month, The Patriot Ledger petitioned the secretary of state’s office to require the town to turn over a copy of the settlement with fewer redactions. Last week, Supervisor or Records Rebecca Murray ordered the town officials to explain why they believe the redactions were justified under the public records law.