A #MeToo reckoning in Everett, four years late

She spoke up only after a co-worker filed the first of five sexual harassment complaints against Foresteire with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination on Nov. 21, 2018. Monday marks the four-year anniversary of that filing, which opened the floodgates of a scandal that was just as quickly contained.

The School Committee placed Foresteire on paid leave and commissioned a $50,000 independent investigation whose contents remain secret today. The school district settled sexual harassment complaints with three former employees, who were bound to confidentiality. Middlesex County prosecutors charged Foresteire with six counts of indecent assault and battery and one count of assault and battery, but he has yet to face trial and the case against him remains shrouded in secrecy.

Until this week, Foresteire had maintained his innocence and convinced many in Everett that he was wrongly accused. That changed Tuesday when he indicated in Malden District Court that he would change his plea, admitting to facts sufficient to find him guilty. Before the judge decides whether to accept that plea, his accusers will have a chance to address the court, and some, long kept quiet, are eager to be heard.

“He is a person in power, for sure. But I still have my truth,” said Michelle Massa, a former principal in Everett who now leads an elementary school in Peabody. “And I am very glad to see that people are finally speaking their truth.”

A Globe investigation found a glaring lack of scrutiny and accountability in Everett, a city nearly synonymous with political controversy, regarding the sexual assault accusations against Foresteire, even in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

With details of his case sealed from public view, there has been no public reckoning for how a powerful man went unchallenged on allegations that, the police report makes clear, had been reported to school officials as far back as seven years earlier.

Samantha Lambert, who was elected to the School Committee after Foresteire’s departure, attends his often-postponed court hearings to show Everett’s young people “who thought they saw the culture that they grew up in changing” that Everett isn’t ignoring the lessons of the #MeToo movement.

“My fear now, is that, four years later, the lesson they are taking away is that the justice system doesn’t work for them,” she said. “Will they come forward if they are ever assaulted? I’m afraid they won’t.”

Over three decades as superintendent, Foresteire, 79, had built a small-city political empire through patronage and punishment; residents say he was at once a benevolent patron of people looking for work and a vindictive supervisor who ostracized those who fell out of his favor. Members of the School Committee tasked with overseeing him would not challenge him since he had recruited many of them to run, two past members acknowledged to the Globe. Three people who were on the School Committee when he was placed on leave remain on the board.

As recently as last fall, Foresteire maintained a shadow presence in city politics, helping a slate of four candidates win election to the School Committee and hosting an election watch party at his house. One of the successful candidates acknowledged in April that he still turns to Foresteire for campaign advice, setting aside the disputed allegations to draw on his institutional knowledge.

“I have the utmost respect for Mr. Foresteire, the former superintendent,” Michael Mangan told the Globe. “In terms of anything else he’s involved in — that’s between himself and the courts.”

Foresteire and his lawyer declined to comment. After a court appearance in September, Foresteire declined to comment but predicted that he would be exonerated. A private investigator by his side offered two dismissive words: “Duke Lacrosse,” a reference to the infamous case in which three players were falsely accused of rape. The investigator later confirmed that he was working for Foresteire’s attorney.

In a city with a high tolerance for scandals, Foresteire had already survived three. In 1992, he paid a $250 fine to settle an ethics complaint that he arranged for a school employee to paint a School Committee member’s apartment for free. He was fined $6,000 for a 2008 ethics violation for having school employees perform free and discounted construction work on his home during school time. He was indicted in 2004 for allegedly having air conditioners installed at his house at school expense, a case that was continued without a finding.

“I heard people call him the king of Everett,” said Patricia Jordan, who previously worked as a principal and administrator in Everett. “He liked everybody to know he was in charge.”

Within the confines of an insular city, Foresteire wielded unusual power to make or break people’s careers —so much so that Massa likened his power to the #MeToo movement’s most notable felled titan.

“I would equate him to Harvey Weinstein,” Massa said of Foresteire. “He used his power to manipulate vulnerable people.”

In her first media interview about her experience, Massa told the Globe that Foresteire’s behavior was an open secret within the schools.

He would often “accidentally” brush up against or touch her breasts, she said, then apologize as if it had been unintentional.

“And then it made you think you were a lunatic,” Massa said. “Am I imagining this? Did this just happen?”

Massa was told her interactions with Foresteire preceded the statute of limitations.

The civil and criminal cases involve seven women who worked for the Everett schools. Only one — the first to file an MCAD complaint — is involved in both the civil and criminal actions against Foresteire. The other two women whose claims led to criminal charges did not receive settlements.

The Globe does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission.

In the police report, Massa serves as a witness for two women who told her about their experiences with Foresteire at the time and a third who did not come forward.

Most of the women said they lost their jobs or were transferred to lesser positions after resisting Foresteire’s advances or complaining to co-workers, according to the police report. Foresteire’s contract gave him sole control over hiring, firing, and job placements and former employees said he kept them on edge by routinely distributing tentative layoff letters or moving them to different buildings.

“People that fell out of favor would be relocated,” Massa said. “It’s like the mafia.”

When a photographer was taking group pictures, Massa said, “you didn’t want to be next to him,” because his hand was known to drift from a polite position to a probing one.

One of the MCAD complaints that the School Committee settled involved a report that a group of high school cheerleaders danced on a conference table in the school administration building as part of a “rolling pep rally” 10 years ago.

“It was so inappropriate for young girls to be dancing around on a table in cheerleading outfits,” the employee, whose name is being withheld by the Globe as an alleged victim of sexual harassment, said in her complaint.

After the pep rally, Foresteire approached her and said in a sexually suggestive manner, “I’m going to have you dancing on the table next,” she wrote.

The police report, which includes interviews with four accusers and eight witnesses, spells out in lurid detail the allegations that led to criminal charges. One school employee said she was bending over, tossing coins on the floor of Foresteire’s new Cadillac, when he grabbed her buttocks. She’d been told the coin toss was an Italian tradition for good luck.

Another said Foresteire routinely snuck up behind her to rub her shoulders while speaking to her in a low, “dirty” voice; she moved her computer so she could see him coming. She told police he once reached over her desk, unzipped her shirt, and said “those are nice.” Another time, when she snapped at Foresteire for his behavior, he punished her by sending her to the special education office indefinitely, according to the police report.

“She sat in the room for the week sitting at an empty desk like a child,” the police report states.

When she finally quit, Foresteire hugged her goodbye, pressing his erection against her crotch, she told police.

The remaining criminal counts involve the woman who filed the first MCAD complaint. When she worked the school switchboard, he would call her for dirty talk, she told police; on Mondays, he would want to know if she’d had sex over the weekend and when she last had an orgasm. He often paraded her around the school administration building and, on his birthday, asked her to lift her dress and show him her underwear, she told police.

A recurrent theme in the allegations is a preoccupation with employees’ appearances. Foresteire expected women to wear dresses and once asked principals to refer potential clerical hires to him, “especially if they are easy on the eyes,” Massa told police.

“He would ‘show off’ women he viewed as dressed to his liking and ridicule women who were not,” one woman said in her MCAD complaint. “I got the sense that everyone in the building feared him and later learned that you did not dare speak about his treatment of all of us if you wanted to secure your job.”

After the first MCAD filer told her story to WBZ-TV in December 2018, the School Committee chairman was quick to defend Foresteire, who had worked in the schools for more than five decades. “There has never been any allegation about his conduct in all of those years,” Berardino D’Onofrio said in a statement.

Now, D’Onofrio acknowledges that — while formal complaints hadn’t been filed — some members of the School Committee weren’t surprised by the allegations.

“A few of them did know,” D’Onofrio said. “The last couple of years, I had heard things.”

According to the police report, several of the women had reported Foresteire’s behavior to other school personnel as far back as 2011.

The employee who said Foresteire would sneak up on her spent a tearful hour telling a high-ranking female school administrator that Foresteire wouldn’t stop touching her, the police report says. The administrator told her it was her responsibility to make him stop, she told police. When a male colleague she confided in mentioned her allegations to a co-worker, that person urged him to drop it, he told police.

“This is the boss we’re talking about,” the person said, according to the police report.

In February 2011, Massa told police that she found a teacher crying and shaken, saying Foresteire had pinned her against the wall and tried to put his hands up her dress. Massa reported it to the school’s Title IX officer — the administrator responsible for handling such complaints — but was told there was nothing he could do if the woman didn’t want to report it, Massa told police.

“Everything was swept under the rug,” Massa said.

Even after it became public, D’Onofrio said he faced pressure to quash an investigation and received intimidating phone calls from Foresteire supporters that made him think he had to act quickly.

“I believe if I didn’t do it right away, whoever else he got to, whoever else wound up being the chairman and vice chairman, may have been able to crush this,” D’Onofrio said.

For a long time, it appeared the criminal charges might disappear as well. Foresteire’s criminal case file was impounded after Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan sought the removal of the police report — which had already been redacted — from the public clerk’s file.

Although lawyers for the Globe successfully petitioned to have the case unsealed in May, the documents still do not appear online where the public could review them. The clerk magistrate said that’s because a key document remains impounded: the report of an independent investigator, commissioned by the School Committee, to examine how the allegations were handled within the school system. Since both the prosecution and defense want that report to remain impounded until the trial, the entire case remains unavailable online.

Neither city nor school officials would say how much was spent on the settlements to former employees, asserting that most of the cost was covered by insurance, not government funds subject to public records law.

But two people with knowledge of the settlements said they exceeded the schools’ $1 million liability coverage. That left taxpayers to pick up the excess costs: nearly $200,000 on legal fees and settlements beyond what insurance covered, public records show.

Losses were so steep in 2019 that the school system’s insurance company dropped its policy, according to school documents.

Shortly after being placed on leave, Foresteire retired with a windfall of more than $450,000 for vacation and sick time he hadn’t used during his long tenure. More than half of it was paid out after the first accusation. He continues to receive an annual pension of $118,398, according to the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System.

With the change in plea, Foresteire’s lawyer, Gerard F. Malone, is seeking to have the charges continued without a finding, which would allow Foresteire to avoid a conviction and perhaps continue receiving his pension. Prosecutors want him to serve time in prison and be kept away from school property, the plea document shows. A conviction or a guilty plea would also require him to register as a sex offender.

It remains unclear how Foresteire’s legal fees have been paid since he retired. When asked who was paying him, Malone would not answer.

Robert Galvin, the School Committee’s attorney, said a search of payments from the school produced no record of payments to Malone. “I have no information that would lead me to believe” that the school is responsible for Foresteire’s criminal defense, he said.

A city spokeswoman said, “the City of Everett has not made any payments to any lawyer or law firm representing the former Superintendent in any criminal proceeding.”

But four people who were involved in the case remain convinced that the schools or the city are covering his expenses and will only be able to recoup them if Foresteire is convicted.

“Somewhere, somehow, the city is footing the bill for this,” said Tom Abruzzese, a member of the School Committee when Foresteire was put on leave. “That’s my understanding.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.