A Middlesex Sheriff’s Office employee disciplined for organizing a political fundraiser while working on state property says the new sheriff is making a scapegoat of him by punishing him and ignoring others who did what was common practice under the former sheriff.
Eril Ligonde was suspended for six weeks without pay for the 2009 fundraiser for former Sheriff James DiPaola he helped organize while on the clock and on sheriff’s office property, both in violation of state campaign finance laws.
“I think he’s being used as a scapegoat within the department,” said his friend and retired Middlesex Sheriff Assistant Deputy Superintendent Ernie Hicks.
Ligonde’s attorneys declined to make him available for an interview, but Hicks says it was common practice to raise money on the clock.
“It’s been going on for years,” he said.
Hicks isn’t the only one to say there were problems.
Last year FOX Undercover revealed evidence, including statements under oath in a deposition, that DiPaola rewarded donors with promotions and other favorable treatment.
Current and former employees have told FOX Undercover that these donations were often made in cash and not recorded as campaign contributions.
“I've been to four, five parties,” one of those interviewed said in an interview that aired in January 2011. “I've seen the money counted. $2,100 in one case, $2,300 in another, and handed to the sheriff, and he'd put it in his top left hand pocket and then smoke a cigar like it was normal business.”
The Mass. Attorney General’s office began a corruption investigation after FOX Undercover’s initial story last November. That investigation is still ongoing, a spokesman for the office said.
Ligonde and two others organized a 2009 fundraiser for DiPaola at the Tewksbury Country Club “using (Middlesex Sheriff’s Office) time, facilities and equipment to organize and solicit donations...." according to a State Ethics Commission report.
The party ended with "an envelope containing approximately $4,000 in cash and checks" being handed over to DiPaola’s political campaign treasurer, the report says. But it ultimately cost Ligonde a $10,000 fine from the Ethics Commission and additional fines for the other two employees.
Ligonde also faced internal discipline from the new sheriff, Peter Koutoujian, who took over in January after DiPaola's suicide last November.
In addition to his unpaid suspension, Koutoujian demoted him from captain to corrections officer.
But in his complaint filed with the Mass. Commission Against Discrimination, Ligonde says Koutoujian never bothered to investigate anyone else even though it was something many other employees were doing.
"(F)or the vast majority of these events, (Middlesex Sheriff's Office) employees sell tickets on state ground,” his complaint says.
Ligonde also identifies several high-ranking employees he says bought tickets from him while working on state property and names another employee who was selling tickets to his own fundraiser.
But “no other employees who bought or sold fundraiser tickets on state grounds were punished for those infractions,” Ligonde writes.
When he was tapped by Gov. Deval Patrick in January to be the new sheriff, former state representative Peter Koutoujian promised to make as his first priority “to professionalize this office” and also vowed to help the ongoing corruption investigation in his department.
“I will work with these investigations to insure that any impropriety or illegality is addressed in a positive fashion and those that might be responsible will also be addressed as well,” he said in January.
But by the time he appeared on the FOX 25 morning news earlier this month, Koutoujian didn't sound so eager to get to the bottom of things.
“Your predecessor left some issues at the Middlesex county sheriff's office that certainly needed to be dealt with. What's the biggest surprise that you faced?” he was asked by FOX 25’s Doug “VB” Goudie.
Instead of answering the question about his predecessor, Koutoujian instead lauded the work of the rank and file employees.
“Well, I think it was really the work of the corrections officers up there. It is a very difficult job up there,” Koutoujian replied.
By the time FOX Undercover caught up with him last week, Koutoujian couldn't get away fast enough.
“Sheriff,” asked FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet. “You'll go on our morning news but you won't talk to FOX Undercover? You trying to avoid our questions?”
Koutoujian broke into a brief jog then continued walking to his car without answering.
“Are you really interested in cleaning up this place?” Beaudet asked, without being answered. “Why have only three people been disciplined?”
Beaudet asked Hicks if more people inside the department should be held accountable.
“I'm not the judge of that. That's something that Sheriff Koutoujian has to deal with, so I can't make a comment on that,” Hicks said. “But I can tell you that Eril Ligonde is not the core of the problem out there in Middlesex County. It’s a much bigger picture than that.”
Eril Ligonde may not be the biggest problem for the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office, but things are getting worse for him.
Just hours after Koutoujian was questioned by FOX Undercover, Ligonde was served with termination papers.
And while Koutoujian didn't have much to say on camera, his office did release a statement saying that "... this issue was investigated thoroughly by the Middlesex Sheriff's Office as well as the State Ethics Commission and the appropriate actions were taken that reflect the severity of the offense."