Westfield scandal can't be swept under Bay State political rug

WHAT smacks of a badly bungled attempt to cover up alleged serious misconduct by a state college president has to be embarrassing for several high-ranking Massachusetts officials. It raises a lot of questions. And the public deserves answers.

Who initiated the payment of $10,000 to a student who said he had been sexually assaulted by Westfield State College President Francis J. Pilecki?

Why was this highly unusual backdoor settlement approved by the school's trustees, the state Board of Regents of Higher Education, Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti, Comptroller Ellen O'Connor, and perhaps others?

When did Gov. Michael S. Dukakis find out about the Pilecki situation and the special compensation settlement with the student?

Have there been similar instances involving payments of what amounts to hush-money to others who have complained of alleged improprieties concerning the conduct of state employees?

Did Mr. Pilecki have special political connections that helped land him the college presidency and perhaps helped keep the serious charges against him under wraps for months, even after his resignation from the $80,000-a-year post?

The Westfield president was indicted June 20 by a Hampden County grand jury on charges of indecent assault and battery on two male students. He has been suspended by the college's trustees.

Obviously, like anyone accused of wrongdoing, he is entitled to be considered innocent unless, or until, proved guilty. His rights should, and clearly will, be protected.

At the same time, however, the public is entitled to know what went wrong in the handling of the case by college and other state officials once the charges involving Pilecki came to their attention.

What is needed is a full-scale probe, not just to find a scapegoat or point an accusing finger at anyone, but to suggest ways to prevent something even remotely similar from happening again.

Clearly, it's too big a job for a single investigator, even one of the unquestioned quality of former Superior Court Judge Rudolph Pierce, who has been chosen by Governor Dukakis to conduct the Westfield inquiry. Particularly desirable would be an independent commission. It could be made up of both state lawmakers and those outside of government, who could impartially dig into the Westfield College situation.

Its findings could lead to specific recommendations for ensuring greater openness in the way state colleges are run, including perhaps the elimination of special funds beyond the scope of state audits.

Although payments such as that to the Westfield College student may be perfectly legal, $10,000 is hardly a small amount, and it would seem expenditures that large for such an unusual purpose should probably have gone before the legislature for approval.

Special contingency accounts for state colleges, like other agencies within government, may be all right, but greater safeguards on how such funds are used would be in the taxpayers' best interest.

If even a dollar of public money is to be spent in an unusual way, such as placating an aggrieved student for mistreatment by school administrators, the legislature should have a say.

Another matter deserving lawmaker attention, and as soon as possible, is the question of whether those removed from a state job should continue to receive compensation.

Certainly nary a penny of pension money should go to anyone convicted of misconduct in office or forced to resign under heat of strong accusations. Under a recent state Supreme Court ruling, Pilecki, should he be convicted on any of the assault charges, would presumably still be entitled to a pension.

Whether it's the money counters for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority who were the victors in the state high court's ruling on retirement-compensation rights, or anyone else found guilty of wrongdoing, those who betray a trust and break the law should not get a pension.

Whoever arranged or approved the $10,000 settlement with the Westfield student should have known it would come to light, as well as the reasons for the college president's resignation. Thus any argument that all this was done to protect the school's reputation does not hold water and is an insult to the public's right to know.

Westfield State College, like any other public or private institution of higher learning, competes for students on the basis of the quality of education it provides.

Certainly there are lots of honest, dedicated, and competent administrators, faculty, and other staff members at Westfield State College. They are a credit to the state and their profession and are in no way involved in the alleged incidents concerning the school's former president.

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