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Summer school hiring practice sparks ethics investigation

Date: 6/14/2011

June 15, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

AGAWAM — The Com-monwealth of Massachusetts State Ethics Commission recently cited Agawam High School guidance counselor Alan Cohen for a conflict of interest violation stemming from a summer school hire that took place in 2010.

"This is my brother, not me," Mayor Richard Cohen, who is also chair of the School Committee, said. "The summer school is now following the [hiring] procedure outlined by the {state] Ethics Commission."

The investigation of the ethics violation complaint took place between February 18 and May 20, 2011.

On May 25, Cohen signed a Disposition Agreement with the State Ethics Commission, admitting that he violated General Law c. 268A, the conflict of interest law, when he hired Agawam High School Principal Steve Lemanski's college-age son for a summer school teaching position without following the school's standard hiring protocol.

He was fined a $1,000 civil penalty by the commission for his breach of ethics law, and paid the fine at the time the agreement was signed.

According to the disposition, Cohen, as the Agawam High School summer school director, hired the young man — who had not yet completed his college degree or received his educator license — to teach physical education during the school's July 6 to Aug 2, 2010 summer school session. Lemanski's son — who had stated on his employment application that he anticipated receiving his degree in December of 2010 — was paid $1,200 for the four-week teaching assignment.

Documentation provided to Reminder Publications as a part of the agreement with Cohen indicates that the standard procedure for summer school hiring at Agawam High School includes posting the job internally for a period of 10 days and employing a screening committee to review all applications.

The disposition states that Cohen learned prior to July that the former summer school physical education (PE) teacher was retiring, and that, through conversations with Lemanski about each other's families, that Lemanski's son was completing college with a major in PE. Cohen requested that Lemanski's son submit an application for the job.

"There is a process for which they hire summer school teachers and that process wasn't followed in the hiring of the principal's son," David Giannotti communications division chief for the State Ethics Commission, said. "The process [that was followed in the hiring] was the conduct that violated the [ethics] law."

He explained that public agencies have specific hiring protocols in place so that the best-qualified individuals are selected for jobs.

"When a public employee deviates from those established procedure and, as a result of that deviation, someone with whom the public employee has a private connection gets hired for a job, that's the use of one's position to achieve a privilege," Giannotti said.

Giannotti also indicated the commission could have chosen to pursue an adjudicatory hearing — which is similar to a civil court hearing — against Cohen and, because the violation occurred in 2010, could have fined him as much as $10,000.

"A full penalty was not assessed," he said.

Agawam School Superintendent Dr. Mary Czajkowski said she was aware of the investigation.

"At this point, what I can say is I am aware of the ruling and the finding and at this point it is a personnel matter," Czajkowski said. "I did receive a copy of the finding and the ruling."

She said she would be dealing with the matter herself before she leaves the district to assume the position as superintendent of the Barnstable Public Schools.

Debbie Gardner can be reached by e-mail at

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