News & Commentary
What To Expect
As Doninger Case
Goes To Federal Court
A Deep Dive To The Low Road
By ANDY THIBAULT
The Cool Justice Report
Aug. 21, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
Ask any civil rights lawyer or informed observer and they will tell you: Cops lie regularly under oath and get away with it.
When was the last time you saw a criminal referral for perjury -- or subornation of perjury -- by a state or federal judge in Connecticut?
Judges, like cops, are part of the system. They were born in the system and bred in the system. They sometimes display an institutional inclination to give credence to authority figures. As bad as it is to defer to cops in this regard, the tendency is grossly misplaced with school administrators.
Cops rank higher on the integrity totem pole than school officials when it comes to telling the truth and being forthcoming with public information.
As I wrote for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission's 30th anniversary commemorative edition -- published by The Connecticut Law Tribune in 2005: "School system employees have the worst track record among Connecticut government agencies for complying with freedom of information requests, instilling fear and dread among citizens who approach them for public records."
School officials tend to stand the truth on its head when it fits their personal needs. Taxpayers and students be damned. These craven officials go so far as to claim meetings attended with many witnesses aren't really meetings and administrators who attend such meetings aren't really public officials. They don't seem to mind, however, collecting their paychecks from other public officials.
Such a stance is the norm for education officials, according to the Connnecticut Foundation for Open Government. The foundation, which tracks the performance of public agencies in responding to FOI requests, reports that police departments are twice as cooperative as school boards in producing public information. School systems are ranked at the bottom of the barrel in terms of FOI compliance.
So, I was not shocked earlier this month when I sought public records from a school system and was met with lies and subterfuge.
Administrators for Regional District 10 had suppressed results of a student election last semester. I had heard there was a massive write-in vote. This led me to seek copies of write-in ballots in accordance with the state Freedom of Information Act.
Atty. Christine Chinni -- acting on behalf of School Superintendent Paula Schwartz -- wrote to me: "The Board does not poses [sic] any "copies of the write-in votes for Ms. Doninger" or memos and emails regarding such write-in votes." There are also no documents or memos concerning the "seizure of free speech t-shirts." Accordingly, the board will not be providing any documents in response to these requests."
Turns out Avery Doninger -- who will be a 17-year-old senior this fall at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington -- actually won election as 2008 class secretary despite being banned from the ballot and subjected to an intimidation campaign. That's why Chinni, Schwartz, Lewis Mills Principal Karissa Niehoff and others did not want to produce the write-in ballots as required by law.
Following several more FOI requests and complaints, the ballots were released to the public. Many other requests for public records remain outstanding.
Understandably, Chinni brought in high-powered back-up for hearings scheduled to begin tomorrow in U.S. District Court in New Haven before Judge Mark Kravitz.
I learned that in the first six months of 2007, Chinni had billed taxpayers in excess of about $60,000. This led me to wonder, How much is the prestige firm, Hartford's Howd & Ludorf being paid? What does their retainer agreement say?
Chinni wrote to me: "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."
This would be amusing if it was not so pathetic and disingenuous.
Chinni went so far as to tell The Bristol Press said there was neither a retainer agreement in existence nor any bills from or payments made to Howd & Ludorf. Only when a Howd & Ludorf partner gave her up to The Bristol Press did Chinni acknowledge use of an insurance company as a device to hold the retainer agreement.
What kind of tactics would a lawyer who claims there are no write-in votes and no retainer agreement employ in court?
Expect a deep dive to the low road with witnesses and other matters before the court. Chinni & Co. will likely try to paint a false picture of a courageous youngster with backbone -- as a disruptive influence. The facts will show disruptions were caused by administrators who can't handle the truth -- or free, fair and open elections.
Necessity will compel Judge Kravitz to rev up his crap detector. The law allows judges lots of room to evaluate the evidence before them. No judge -- no matter what his demeanor, background or life experience -- tolerates lack of candor. And no federal judge in Connecticut relishes the prospect of being overturned by the Second Circuit.