Monday, April 14, 2014
AMHERST — A former Amherst public school teacher is fighting to keep his pension six years after he was convicted and sentenced to prison on child pornography charges.
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday in the case of Ronald T. Garney v. Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System, a case that hinges on whether Garney’s criminal offenses had a direct connection to his position as a teacher in the Amherst school system, where he worked for 22 years.
Under state law, a public employee must forfeit his pension if convicted of a criminal offense involving the laws that apply to his office or position. The case was brought by the retirement system, which is seeking to overturn a Worcester Superior Court decision in 2012 upholding Garney’s right to collect a $2,393 gross monthly pension check.
“It’s a very serious issue and we’re looking forward to the court’s guidance,” Cambridge attorney Robert G. Fabino, who represents the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System, said Friday.
In his brief before the Supreme Court, Fabino argued that there is a link between Garney’s criminal offenses and his professional position as teachers are entrusted with special responsibilities to protect children — and serve as examples of “virtue and morality” to their students.
“His criminal conduct encouraged the exploitation of children, the very class of citizens he was charged to protect,” the brief states.
Fabino reiterated those points before the state Supreme Court Thursday, saying that teachers have heightened responsibilities.
“It goes to the core of their responsibilities to protect children,” he said.
Garney’s attorney, Michael C. Donahue of South Easton. told the court that there is no direct link between Garney’s position as a teacher and his off-the-job criminal offenses. Garney’s conduct, while reprehensible, was private, from his home and involved his personal computer, Donahue told the court.
“It’s a wonderful profession with all sorts of obligations that teachers have on the job, but I’m not sure it follows them to vacation in Canada or out of state. I’m not sure it’s something that follows them on weekends when they are totally unrelated to the work,” Donahue told Supreme Court justices. “If it’s related to their work and it involves a public pension, then there is a direct link.”
The court heard arguments from Fabino and Donahue and took the case under advisement. The state’s highest court rules on most cases within 130 days of oral arguments though not always. “I think we’re right on the law, but it’s up to the court to decide,” Donahue said Friday.
Garney, 67, a former longtime ninth-grade science teacher, pleaded guilty in December 2007 to 11 counts of the purchase and possession of child pornography. He had been identified by federal authorities in 2004 as part of an online investigation of international commercial child pornography websites.
A raid by police of Garney’s home turned up 575 images of child pornography on his home computer and a library of 85 videos of child pornography organized by gender, according to court documents. The materials contained images of children, from toddlers to early teenagers, involved in sexual acts. Many of the victims were later identified, though none were from the Amherst schools.
Garney was sentenced in February 2008 in Hampshire Superior Court to 2½ to 3 years in state prison followed by 10 years probation and was required to register as a sex offender.
He resigned his position in December 2006, just a few weeks after he was informed by then-School Superintendent Jere Hochman that the district intended to fire him. Garney applied for his pension in August 2007, which was after his arrest and before his conviction.
He received pension benefits totalling $31,119 from the time of his conviction until his benefits stopped in February 2009 after a retirement system hearing on the matter.
A district court decision upheld the teachers’ retirement board decision to stop Garney’s benefits, but that was reversed in Worcester Superior Court last year.
Dan Crowley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.