As governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick dismissed two top officials at the state’s sex offender registry board after they questioned a hearing officer’s decision that Patrick’s brother-in-law didn’t have to register as a sex offender despite a conviction for spousal rape.
Three years after Patrick ousted those officials, his brother-in-law, Bernard Sigh, was accused of rape a second time. Once again, the victim was his wife, Patrick’s sister. In June 2019, Sigh was sentenced to six to eight years in prison for rape, kidnapping, stalking and witness intimidation.
“I am terrified at the thought of him being released,” Patrick’s sister said at Sigh’s sentencing hearing. “I would have to leave everything. … I would always be looking over my shoulder.”
As Patrick enters the Democratic presidential primary, he will likely face scrutiny about his judgment in this case and whether he abused his position of power to retaliate against state officials who say they were simply trying to apply the law to the then-governor’s family member.
In a statement sent to HuffPost, Patrick said that the head of the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB) was asked to resign in part because of her unlawful interference in a matter involving Sigh.
“That interference threatened the integrity of the work of the agency and resulted in the Commonwealth having to pay a settlement to a hearing officer who was retaliated against,” Patrick said. “That demanded accountability. ”
Naming A Sex Offender
In 2006, during Deval Patrick’s first run for governor, the Boston Herald dropped a bombshell: His brother-in-law was a convicted rapist who had not registered as a sex offender in the state.
Back in 1993, Sigh had pleaded guilty to raping his wife, Patrick’s sister, in California. After he served a short prison sentence, the couple reconciled and moved to Massachusetts.
Patrick, who ultimately served as governor from 2007 to 2015, was infuriated with the news coverage of the matter just months before his first election and blamed the tip on his Republican gubernatorial opponent. “By no rules of common decency should their private struggles become a public issue, but this is the politics of Kerry Healey and it disgusts me and it has to stop,” he said. The couple’s children did not know about the rape conviction until the media reported it, he added.
After Sigh’s criminal history became public knowledge, SORB determined that he had a duty to register as a Level 1 offender. Sigh requested a hearing to contest the decision. The hearing officer, Attilio Paglia, decided that Sigh did not have to register because the California crime of spousal rape was not equivalent to the crime of rape in Massachusetts, according to court documents. Sigh posed no danger to the public, Paglia concluded.
Others at the agency balked at Paglia’s assessment. Rape was rape, they argued, regardless of the victim’s relationship to the perpetrator.
Marital rape has been illegal in every U.S. state since 1993, although some states still have loopholes in the law that make it hard to prosecute. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, nearly 1 in 10 women in the U.S. have been raped by an intimate partner ― a term that includes spouses and other romantic partners ― in their lifetime.
What happened next is the subject of a number of lawsuits.
Paglia said that he was pressured, unsuccessfully, by SORB chairwoman Saundra Edwards and executive director Jeanne Holmes to reverse his decision. In 2008, he quit and filed a lawsuit against SORB, claiming that he was retaliated against because of the Sigh case. In 2014, Paglia settled his lawsuit for $60,000. His lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But the drama was not over. A few months after the settlement, in a surprise move, Patrick dismissed Edwards and Holmes from their roles at SORB. He cited a loss of confidence in their work and pointed specifically to their efforts to add Sigh to the sex offender registry.
“The final straw was a settlement of a lawsuit … that involves some inappropriate at least, maybe unlawful, pressuring by the chair and the executive director of a hearing officer to change the outcome of a case,” Patrick told reporters back then. It was “time for them to go,” the governor said.
Both women later filed lawsuits against the state alleging that Patrick had retaliated against them for their stance that Sigh should have been required to register as a sex offender. Their cases are still pending.
In court documents, Edwards, a veteran sex crimes prosecutor who had been appointed by Patrick, said that she came to the conclusion that SORB’s overall purpose to protect the public was, “at best, unfulfilled and, at worst, ignored in the Sigh matter.” A lawyer for Edwards said that she was not interested in speaking to the press at this time.
‘Living In A Different World’
Patrick’s firing of the two officials at SORB came under new scrutiny this year after Sigh was convicted of rape for a second time. The 2017 attack on Patrick’s sister was “very similar,” police said, to the 1993 assault against her. Both rapes happened when the husband and wife were estranged.
Wendy Murphy, a Massachusetts lawyer specializing in sexual violence, said that Patrick’s decision to remove officials from SORB was an unacceptable mistake.
“[Sigh] should have been on the registry ― that was the law, there really was no debate to be had,” she said. “For people to suffer retaliation for just trying to do their job … it showed that Deval Patrick not only didn’t think violence against women mattered very much, but he didn’t have any qualms about showing favoritism in the most unethical way imaginable.”
Michele Dauber, a professor of law at Stanford and the chair of the Enough is Enough Voter Project, which works to make violence against women a voting issue, called for Patrick to withdraw from the presidential race. Dauber and Patrick both clerked for the late U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, once dubbed the “liberal lion” of the federal appellate courts.
“I think it shows a lack of judgment,” Dauber said. “Women deserve elected officials who take sexual violence seriously.”
There has been a tectonic shift in thinking about violence against women since 2014, when Patrick ousted the state officials without blowback from the press or the public, she added.
“That was pre-Chanel Miller, pre the resurgence of Me Too, pre-Time’s Up, pre-Harvey Weinstein,” Dauber said. “We are really living in a different world, at least in Democratic Party politics, than we were at that time.”
Patrick, in his statement to HuffPost, said that he was committed to upholding the dignity of survivors of violence and uplifting solutions to eradicate abuse.
“Bernie Sigh’s impact on my family has been complex and painful for all of us,” he said. “I love my sister and her children, and believe their chance to heal is best if left out of the public eye. But because of issues raised in a lawsuit filed against me as Governor, her experience is now part of the public record and it is important that the facts are clear.”