By Kathryn Marchocki
MANCHESTER, N.H. — When the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District tried to keep the public from learning the results of an independent investigator’s probe into questionable spending by its school superintendent this spring, the New Hampshire Union Leader took action.
The statewide newspaper based in Manchester, N.H. filed a Right-to-Know petition with Hillsborough County Superior Court in May seeking the release of the investigative report into possible misuse of school district funds.
The Union Leader also asked the court to unseal minutes of the school board’s April 24 non-public meeting when members discussed the investigation results. The board immediately sealed the report and minutes of its secret session for 50 years, then announced superintendent Trevor Ebel’s resignation.
Judge Kenneth Brown on May 30 ordered the meeting minutes and related documents be released to the public, saying the public’s interest in disclosure outweighed Ebel’s privacy interest. The judge allowed the names of witnesses who cooperated in the investigation to remain private.
Brown ruled Ebel held a limited privacy claim since much of the information already had been made public through earlier Union Leader requests for documents related to Ebel’s employment, retirement and charges Ebel made to the school district’s credit card from July 1, 2010 to April 24, 2012.
But Brown upheld the school board’s claim that the investigative report is exempt from disclosure under the Right-to-Know law as a “record pertaining to internal personnel practices.” He ordered the report remain sealed.
“Obviously, I’m pleased with the portions of the decision that opened up the minutes to public scrutiny, but I’m disappointed the court did not unseal the investigator’s report,” attorney Gregory V. Sullivan of Malloy & Sullivan law firm in Hingham, Mass. and Manchester said. Sullivan represents the Union Leader Corp. and is a NEFAC board member.
The school board hired investigator Dean Eggert in March after an annual audit revealed Ebel had taken payroll advances, charged some personal expenses to the district’s credit card and made inappropriate charges to state and federal grants — including alcohol, limousines and movies, the school board minutes revealed.
School board chairman Geoff Brown said Ebel repaid the school district more than $2,200 in inappropriate charges Ebel made to the district’s credit card plus interest.
Geoff Brown said the judge’s ruling vindicated the school board.
The board’s strategy was to seal the documents and force the court or another body to make the documents public so Ebel could not hold the school board liable for any potential damage to his reputation, the school board chairman explained. He said the investigation revealed no evidence Ebel was involved in criminal activity.
Kathryn Marchocki is a senior staff reporter at the New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, N.H.