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SNESL Students Sue Massachusetts,
Allege Corruption Killed UMD Merger Bid
By DAVID KIBBE,
Standard-Times staff writer
July 22, 2005
BOSTON -- The Student Bar Association at Southern New England School of Law filed a lawsuit yesterday against Suffolk University Law School and a former Romney administration official, alleging they used "corrupt and undue influence" to block a proposed merger of SNESL and UMass Dartmouth last spring.
The state Board of Higher Education voted 8-3 to kill the proposed merger with UMass last March, following heavy lobbying against it by the Romney administration, Suffolk and several other private law schools.
The heart of the lawsuit is a claim that Charles Chieppo, as a Suffolk consultant, violated state ethics laws by writing a damaging report against the merger less than a year after he left the Romney administration.
The lawsuit alleges Romney administration officials who reported to Chieppo or worked with him were reviewing the law school merger while he was policy director of the governor's administration and finance office.
State ethics law prohibits former state employees from lobbying a state agency on an issue that was their "official responsibility" as a state employee for a year after leaving the job.
"The purpose of all those ethics statutes is pretty clear," said lawyer Leon Blais, who filed the lawsuit yesterday in Superior Court in Taunton. "The purpose is to keep public officials and public employees from using their former positions to make money immediately after they get out of them."
A spokeswoman for Suffolk did not have an immediate comment yesterday. Chieppo did not respond to phone and e-mail messages by press time.
Last spring, Chieppo wrote a report that said the merger would cost $39 million. UMass officials said it would cost $1.7 million, because SNESL had already spent millions seeking American Bar Association accreditation.
"I have not heard a single attack that went to the substance of the report," Chieppo said in April, when he was under fire from supporters of the merger. "Clearly, the reaction has been to attack me personally. I think that speaks to the quality of the report."
Blais and his law partner, Carey Parent, are 2001 SNESL graduates and have an office in Mansfield.
"The present students and prospective students are really the ones that are being harmed by this, more than any institution," Blais said. "The whole point of this was to provide a reasonably priced legal education to people who otherwise might not be able to afford it. That has all been stymied by an unfair process."
In addition to Suffolk Law, two other private law schools, identified only as "Doe" schools of law 1 and 2, are named in the suit.
Blais said the identities of those schools were not yet known.
The lawsuit also names the state Board of Higher Education and its chairman, Stephen Tocco, but only to make the board's vote against the merger null and void. It also seeks unspecified monetary damages for the members of the Student Bar Association, which includes the 260 full- and part-time students at the school.
The Student Bar Association is independent of the law school's administration.
Blais and Parent simultaneously filed an ethics complaint against Suffolk and Chieppo with the State Ethics Commission.
Once the lawsuit is served on Chieppo, Suffolk, and the state, they will have 20 days to respond.
The legal action is the latest twist in the controversy over the board's law school vote. The UMass Board of Trustees overwhelmingly approved the merger in December, and it had the strong support of UMass President Jack M. Wilson and UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack.
Romney pledged neutrality on the merger in meetings with UMass officials, but called undecided Board of Higher Education members the night before the March 31 vote to urge them to defeat it.
By hiring Chieppo, the lawsuit alleges, Suffolk and one or two other law schools were "obtaining improper, unfair, corrupt and undue influence and sway over the proceedings and deliberations of the board, including but not limited to its committees, subcommittees, members and staff, for the purpose of defeating the merger proposal between the University of Massachusetts and the Southern New England School of Law."
Chieppo was director of policy in the Executive Office of Administration and Finance under Romney. Since leaving the office, he was hired as a consultant to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and the Governor's Environmental Policy Office.
Chieppo left as Romney's policy director around the end of the year, according to the lawsuit. He was hired by Suffolk as a consultant sometime between Sept. 1, 2004, and March 31, 2005, "to write and deliver a report critical of the application of the University of Massachusetts/Dartmouth to merge with the Southern New England School of Law," Blais alleged in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit names a number of Romney administration officials who reported to or worked with Chieppo and met with UMass staff members about the law school merger during the fall and winter.
The lawsuit seeks to bar Chieppo from providing information to the Board of Higher Education should it take up the law school merger in the future.
Chieppo was fired as a weekly Boston Herald op-ed columnist in April after it was disclosed that he was simultaneously working as an Environmental Affairs consultant in Romney's administration. Chieppo said he had previously cleared the arrangement with the Ethics Commission.
This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on July 22, 2005.