Had Denied Existence Of Write-In Ballots
And Retainer Agreement For Hartford Firm
Write-In Ballots Show Doninger Won;
Hartford Firm Acknowledges
In Register Citizen Story Published Today:
Foiled FOI Requests Lead
To Complaint[s] In Mills Free Speech Case
By Jacqueline Manning
Special to The Register Citizen
Page A3, Aug. 17, 2007
BURLINGTON – The free-speech case involving Region 10 administrators and Burlington teenager Avery Doninger scheduled to be heard on Aug. 22 also has several Freedom of Information complaints hanging on its coat tails.
In addition to a Freedom of Information complaint filed last month by Doninger’s mother, Lauren, against the Region 10 Board of Education, claiming it held an illegal executive session to discuss her daughter’s case, freelance writer Andy Thibault has filed additional complaints with the FOI Commission against Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz for denial of public records.
“In the course of researching a story on Avery Doninger for Connecticut Magazine, I made routine requests for public records,” Thibault said. “These requests were met with stonewalling, evasiveness and lack of candor by (Region 10 board attorney) Christine Chinni.”
Chinni responded on Schwartz’s behalf to an FOI request Thibault made for records of legal fees being paid to attorneys Thomas Gerarde and Katherine Rule of Howd & Ludorf. Gerarde and Rule suddenly emerged as part of Schwartz’s and Lewis Mills High School Principal Karissa Niehoff’s defense team on July 26, when they filed appearances and a motion to have the case moved to federal court.
Doninger’s attorney, Jon Schonhorn, is seeking a temporary injunction to overturn the May 25 election results of the 2008 student council on the grounds that Doninger was unconstitutionally banned from participating and delivering her speech by Schwartz and Niehoff. He contents the duo was [angered] by a derogatory comment Doninger posted on a [personal] website off of school grounds about the central office.
(See links below, including DONNINGER WON BY [suppressed] WRITE IN VOTE.)
Chinni’s response read in part: “First, the board does not possess any ‘billing records related to legal work that has been farmed out to the firm Howd & Ludorf and / or (this firm) regarding alleged civil rights violations by (Mrs. Schwartz) and (her) administration against students including Avery Doninger.’ The board does not possess a retainer agreement, indemnification clause retainer check or any other check or invoice from either firm regarding any alleged violations of any student’s civil rights. Therefore, the board will not be providing any such documents.”
When asked last week how Howd & Ludorf came to be involved, Chinni said, “It’s a private matter.” She added she would still serve as counsel in the defense of Schwartz and Niehoff alongside Gerarde in the case.
When questioned about payment to the firm, she said there was neither a retainer agreement in existence nor any bills from or payments made to the law firm. When asked if the firm was not getting paid for its services, Chinni replied, “I didn’t say that.”
Mark Dubois, chief disciplinary counsel for the state Judicial Branch, said the Rules of Professional Responsibility Section 1.5B requires lawyers to have a written fee agreement with clients. He noted any written rule always has an escape patch. For this rule, he said the exception is when an attorney would charge a regularly represented client on the same basis or rate. He added if there is any change in basis or rate fee, it should be communicated in writing.
On Thursday, the following question was put forth to Schwartz, Chinni and Gerarde, “Are Burlington and Harwinton taxpayers paying for Howd and Ludorf services in any way, shape or form in the case of Avery Doninger?
According to Gerarde, Region 10 Board of Education’s insurance carrier, Massamont Insurance, hired Howd and Ludorf because the insurance covers at least part of the claim by the Doningers. He added Massamont Insurance specializes in covering municipalities.
“We do have a retainer agreement with Massamont and the company is paying our fees,” Gerarde said.
Schwartz did not return a phone call for an answer as of press deadline Thursday.