By Keith Eddings
---- — METHUEN — The City Council’s contentious search for a new solicitor slipped deeper into the rabbit hole yesterday when a councilor asked police to investigate whether the man now holding the job sent an accusing text message to a finalist as he was being interviewed by the council.
Councilor Thomas Ciulla said Solicitor Peter McQuillan should be fired if an investigation concludes he interfered with the search by sending the inflammatory text to finalist Richard D’Agostino, accusing him of lying as the council questioned him about one of his references for the solicitor’s job Tuesday night.
Ciulla accused McQuillan of using city property — the cell phone assigned to him — “to circumvent the process and to discredit a candidate.”
“There are allegations that need to be proven or not proven,” Ciulla said at a meeting he requested with Eagle-Tribune editors after the newspaper reported Thursday that McQuillan sent D’Agostino the inflammatory text during his council interview. He said it was improper for McQuillan “to send him a message when the man is interviewing, which is one of the most important days of his life, because the gentleman is trying to get a job.”
The city charter allows the council to investigate employees accused of wrongdoing and gives it power to subpoena witnesses and demand documents. The charter does not say whether the council president can instigate the investigation on his own or if a vote of the council is needed.
Council President Sean Fountain said yesterday he will seek to clarify that issue, but at the same time said he believed a vote of the full council would be needed and also said it should move cautiously. He said he wanted to meet with McQuillan to discuss the text message.
“I have no idea if any violation occurred,” Fountain said. “This is based on accusations. There was a text message sent to (D’Agostino). It could be an ethical breach. I don’t think there’s any law broken. We’re going to look at it, talk to (McQuillan) and then figure out how the council will proceed.”
McQuillan admitted sending the text message on an impulse as he watched D’Agostino’s interview from his home on a live Internet stream from City Hall. He sent the text just after Councilor Jamie Atkinson questioned D’Agostino about a decision by one of his references, Lawrence District Court Clerk Andrew Gradzewicz, to withdraw his recommendation at the last minute.
“This is news to me,” D’Agostino responded to Atkinson’s question.
“That’s a lie he tried to contact gradzewicz today!!!!” McQuillan texted to D’Agostino at 6:53 p.m., midway through the council interview.
McQuillan’s use of the word “he” in referring to D’Agostino suggests he intended to send it to someone else, but McQuillan said Thursday that the text was intended for D’Agostino.
Ciulla said the intended target of the text should be part of any investigation, which he said should be conducted by Methuen police. He said police also should investigate whether other councilors were receiving texts from McQuillan during D’Agostino’s interview.
Ciulla said police also should investigate how McQuillan knew that D’Agostino earlier in the day may have contacted Gradzewicz about his decision to withdraw his job recommendation, as McQuillan alleged in his text. He said police also should investigate whether Gradzewicz was unduly pressured to withdraw his recommendation.
“How does the city solicitor have intimate knowledge of Gradzewicz’s letter and then sends a text to the candidate during the interview process?” Ciulla asked.
McQuillan declined to comment on any part of the episode yesterday, including Ciulla’s request for a police investigation. D’Agostino also would not comment.
“I’m not going to interject myself or interfere with the process, unlike others,” D’Agostino said.
The council may vote on a new solicitor as early as Monday. The second finalist is William Faraci, a former assistant solicitor for Haverhill. Rather than hiring one of the two, the council may consider scrapping the search and re-advertising the position.
The search was triggered Jan. 7 when the council voted 5-4 against reappointing McQuillan. He earns $113,000.
Tuesday’s texting episode is the most recent of several bumps the search has hit over the last three months, beginning with revelations that the council held secret interviews with applicants outside City Hall in apparent violation of the state’s open meetings law.
Shortly afterward, two of the four finalists dropped out suddenly when their names were disclosed.
Yesterday, Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua sent Methuen councilors a lengthy letter disputing D’Agostino’s account of his departure as assistant city attorney in Lawrence last year, accusing him of attempting to “mislead the Methuen city council for the purposes of securing employment.” D’Agostino told the council he was “fired by a corrupt mayor” and referred to Lantigua as “the devil.”
The search could hit one bump more if the Methuen Police Department is asked to investigate McQuillan because of the conflict it might pose for Chief Joseph Solomon. McQuillan defended the city against the lawsuit Solomon filed after former Mayor William Manzi fired him in 2008.
Solomon won his job back, as well as a $100,001 judgment that ended part of his claim against the city, which the council voted to pay on Thursday.
“I believe Chief Solomon delegates investigations to subordinates,” Fountain said about whether Solomon could be impartial if he oversees an investigation of his former courtroom adversary. “Those investigations are done above board at all times.”
Solomon did not return a phone call.