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Ex-school aide admits to snooping on celebrities

Pays $5,000 fine to settle ethics case

By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / June 15, 2010

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A former aide to the fired Lawrence school superintendent paid a $5,000 civil fine yesterday to settle a conflict-of-interest case stemming from his use of a database to conduct unauthorized background checks on more than 400 people, including famous actors, Governor Deval Patrick, and Red Sox player David Ortiz.

In the settlement with the State Ethics Commission, Mark Rivera, 33, admitted to violating the conflict-of-interest law by repeatedly using the school district’s computers to access the personal information of hundreds of people from 2007 to 2009, in a manner not related to his job, according to panel spokesman David Giannotti.

Lawrence police Chief John Romero, one of the individuals whose background was checked by Rivera, called the misuse appalling.

“It was clear that the system was not being used for what it was intended for,’’ Romero said. “The private backgrounds of all sorts of people, from news reporters to elected officials was accessed. Did I see this as an invasion of my privacy? Yeah, I did.’’

Romero said his department started investigating Rivera but stopped after determining that Rivera didn’t commit a criminal act. Instead, the Ethics Commission took up the matter.

“He paid the fine in lieu of this going to a hearing,’’ Giannotti said. “An investigation had been done, and the settlement agreement was ironed out between the enforcement division and Mr. Rivera through his counsel. That’s the end of it.’’

Rivera’s Andover lawyer, Murat Erkan, said his client acted at the direction of superiors in performing the unauthorized checks.

“There is some indication that much of this was done at the request of individuals who were higher than him, that he conducted those inquiries because he was given a directive,’’ Erkan said by phone yesterday. Erkan refused to say which supervisor or supervisors allegedly gave Rivera the order.

Early last year, a former school employee contacted authorities and provided them with printouts of names that Rivera had run through the school department’s LexisNexis account. The account allowed users to perform criminal background checks and survey other personal information. In some cases, Rivera accessed information using Social Security numbers and in other cases, the information he accessed contained those numbers. According to the commission’s disposition agreement, the Lawrence School Department paid a $120 monthly fee to access LexisNexis.

The department purchased the access to the database to allow Rivera and another employee to “obtain contact information for parents no longer living in the district, and to contact parents and students regarding attendance issues.’’ But the commission found Rivera, “repeatedly misused his school department authority to access the LexisNexis database through the school department’s account to conduct hundreds of searches of nonpublic information on individuals, including state and local elected officials, professional athletes, and Hollywood celebrities, for his own private purposes.’’

The case was another blow to the Lawrence School Department and to the city, which has endured several scandals in recent months, including embezzlement and fraud charges against Rivera’s boss at the time, former superintendent Wilfredo Laboy.

Rivera, who made $66,000 as Laboy’s aide, submitted his resignation on April 7, 2009. The school board ousted Laboy this year after his arraignment. Laboy pleaded not guilty.

While the case taken up by the commission has been resolved, Rivera still faces larceny charges for allegedly directing the school department’s graphic designers to produce campaign literature for former mayoral candidate Israel Reyes and Mayor William Lantigua. Prosecutors say there is no evidence to suggest that Lantigua knew of the printings.

Rivera, who pleaded not guilty, is due back in Essex Superior Court on Aug. 4 for an administrative hearing.

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com.

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