LAWRENCE - Former School Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy has begun his defense against fraud and embezzlement charges in Salem Superior Court where it is expected he will testify on his own behalf today.
The prosecution rested its case yesterday, six days after the start of the trial. Jurors were told yesterday to expect to hear closing arguments as early as tomorrow morning.
Laboy, 60, who was superintendent of the Lawrence public schools for nearly a decade, is accused of breaching the public trust and using public school resources for personal gain. He is also charged with illegal possession of 16 bottles of alcohol, some opened, in his school department office.
Defense attorney Scott Gleason described Laboy as a "virtual miracle man" who worked tirelessly to improve the battered school system. Two years after he was fired, the district was placed in state receivership for underperformance, he said.
Potential defense witnesses include former Mayor Michael Sullivan and Maria Cruz, Laboy's former executive assistant who now works for Mayor William Lantigua, Gleason said.
So far, numerous witnesses - custodians, facility managers, graphic designers and even Laboy's special assistant - all testified they ran a variety of personal errands for Laboy on school time, including driving his grown son to work dozens of times after he lost his license; picking up his sick grandchildren at a Methuen school; fixing electrical problems with his pool; meeting with contractors at his Methuen home and even retrieving trash from the 106 Howe St. house when Laboy forgot to put it out at curbside.
Mark Rivera, Laboy's former special assistant, along with former school department graphic designers John Laurenza and Dayton Schlosser, also testified Laboy told them to work on school time on outside projects for the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents. Laboy became president of the non-profit in 2005, five years after becoming Lawrence superintendent.
Laurenza testified he billed ALAS for nearly $7,000. But Laboy afterwards asked him for $2,500 of that money. Laurenza said he handed over $1,500 cash in an envelope to Laboy and gave another $1,200 to school graphics clerk Charles Birchall.
Rivera, 33, testified he fundraised and sought financial sponsors for ALAS on school time while the graphic designers created a variety of fliers, banners, conference brochures and more during the school day. He described the ALAS work done at the public schools as "voluminous."
Rivera also said Laboy told him to have school computer files containing information about ALAS projects deleted when rumors of an investigation surfaced in 2007. Rivera said he again asked him for help deleting ALAS computer files at the school department in 2009, after Rivera had resigned from his job, and Laboy was hospitalized for a heart problem.
Rivera was also indicted on seven related larceny counts. However, he is pleading guilty to three of the charges and will be sentenced to unsupervised probation through an agreement he reached with District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett's office.
The plea agreement stipulates that Rivera used the school department resources to illegally provide campaign literature for School Committee members Peter Larocque and Priscilla Baez, who is Rivera's sister, and then State Rep. William Lantigua, who is now Lawrence mayor.
Rivera, now a pastor at a Greenland, N.H., church, is scheduled to formally plead guilty next month.
Dr. David Driscoll, the defense's first witness testified yesterday. Driscoll, a former Melrose school superintendent, was state education commissioner and responsible for bringing Laboy on board as school superintendent in 2000. The district was under a state consent order then, due to poor academics. Driscoll and the Lawrence School Committee both approved Laboy's hire.
He described Laboy as a type A personality. "His demeanor was one of urgency. He wanted to get things done," Driscoll said.
But, Judge Richard Welch stepped on co-defense attorney Thomas Gleason, Scott's brother, as he quizzed Driscoll on Laboy's reputation at that time.
"It doesn't matter if Dr. Laboy was the Babe Ruth of superintendents. That's not the issue," he said.
Driscoll testified that the school district made progress under Laboy's direction.
But prosecutor Maureen Wilson Leal asked Driscoll if he knew that in 2006 Lawrence had a 41 percent high school graduation rate. He said he wasn't aware of that exact number but knew district scores had improved.
Leal also asked Driscoll if he knew that under Laboy's command the district purchased a $500,000 printing press. Driscoll said he did not. The press was used for ALAS jobs and to print menus for Laboy's son's pizza shop.
Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron was also briefly testified yesterday, this time for the defense.
Scott Gleason asked her to recall a conversation she had with Laurenza in the summer of 2009. She said Laurenza told her that Laboy and Rivera had given him permission to work on outside graphics jobs during school time.
Laboy faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted on fraud and embezzlement charges. The illegal alcohol possession charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail.
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