EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 21, 2013

Danville selectman pleads guilty to assaulting boy

By Doug Ireland
direland@eagletribune.com

---- — BRENTWOOD — Only days before he was to go on trial, Danville Selectman Russell Harding has pleaded guilty to assaulting a teenage boy and received a suspended jail sentence.

Harding, 36, had previously pleaded not guilty to two simple assault charges but admitted to a reporter he pushed the boy during a confrontation last summer. His trial was to begin Monday in Rockingham Superior Court.

The second-year selectman was given a 60-day suspended sentence by Judge Marguerite Wageling on June 12. He must stay out of trouble for at least a year to avoid serving jail time.

One of the two misdemeanor assault charges was not prosecuted as part of a plea bargain. If convicted at trial, Harding faced a year in jail on each charge.

Harding was ordered not to have any contact with the boy or his family and to complete an anger management evaluation within 60 days. He must also perform five hours of community service.

Harding was arrested by state police on charges he grabbed a teenage boy during Danville’s Movie Night at Day Field on Aug. 18 and slammed his head against a table.

Harding, who helped organize the event, was getting ready to put the screen, projector and other items away when he saw the boy near the equipment. He said he yelled at the boy and asked what he was doing.

Harding also said he pushed the teen because he was trying to prevent him from damaging the town’s movie equipment.

When another Movie Night volunteer called Danville police, the officer who came to investigate turned out to be Michelle Cooper — also a selectman.

The investigation was turned over to state police to avoid any possible conflicts, according to Police Chief Wade Parsons.

Harding surrendered to state police several weeks later after an arrest warrant was issued. He has been free on $5,000 personal recognizance bail.

Harding has refused to speak publicly about the case since his arrest and did not return calls seeking comment yesterday. His attorney, Raymond Mello, also could not be reached for comment.

Harding’s fellow board members were annoyed when he took a leave of absence in November from the $250 a month job, saying he was afraid his legal troubles would be a distraction. He was asked to resign but refused.

Harding later said he would not return until after Feb. 28, believing his case would be resolved by then.

After his court case became delayed, he did not return until March, but Selectmen Chairman Shawn O’Neil later said Harding contributed little, if anything, to the board’s discussions.

“He’s basically been sitting there and not doing anything,” O’Neil said. “The board feels uncomfortable. I wish he would have just resigned before because he’s a distraction.”

O’Neil could not be reached for comment last night.

O’Neil has said selectmen were frustrated they could not replace Harding because, under state law, a public official can be removed from office only if convicted of a felony.