Braille Monitor                                                 May 2011

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Board Ousts Carroll Center for the Blind's President

by Brian McGrory

From the Editor: Monitor readers will recognize the Carroll Center as one of the most famous blindness rehabilitation agencies in the nation. The following story appeared in the March 18, 2011, edition of the Boston Globe. Here it is:

The president of the acclaimed Carroll Center for the Blind was abruptly forced out by an emergency vote of the school's board of directors Wednesday night amid issues about his performance and an internal investigation into whether he harassed a visually impaired female employee, according to two officials affiliated with the school.

All but one board member voted in favor of removing Michael Festa, a former state elder affairs secretary in the Patrick administration and, before that, a popular state representative from Melrose. The lone exception abstained from voting, those officials said. Festa was named president of the institution, which sits on a five-and-a-half acre campus in Newton, in September 2009.

The two officials, who talked only on the condition of anonymity because it involved a personnel matter, said that an outside lawyer was hired to investigate concerns over inappropriate behavior by Festa and that the lawyer made a roughly ninety-minute presentation to the board during the emergency meeting in downtown Boston. The presentation focused on two incidents, both of which involved Festa touching female workers, the officials said. The first was allegedly at a school holiday party in December, and the second involved a witness seeing Festa embrace the visually impaired worker in the basement of the school, the officials said. The employee has not registered a complaint with school officials and has not taken any legal action against the institution or Festa, officials said.

Reached by telephone at his Melrose home yesterday, Festa described his termination as "an unfolding situation” that he was “not at liberty to discuss.” When asked specifically about the possibility of harassment, Festa sounded surprised and said, "That's totally out of the blue. I can assure you on my father's grave I've never heard any of that.”

Festa formally resigned yesterday afternoon in response to the board's push for his departure. He was not present at Wednesday's meeting. Carroll Center board member Joseph Abely confirmed that Festa had resigned, then read a statement saying, "Michael has made many significant, positive contributions to the center during his tenure as president. The board of directors of the center accepted Michael's resignation because it collectively felt a change in leadership was appropriate.”

Abely, the former chief executive of LoJack Corporation, was named by the board to be the Carroll Center's interim president as the school searches for a permanent leader. He declined to elaborate on why Festa was asked to leave. Half a dozen other board members similarly declined to comment. The Carroll Center lawyer, David Cifrino of McDermott Will & Emery, did not return a phone call.

Two officials said Festa had been previously warned by subordinates and one board member about his behavior following the December party, but had responded by referencing his Italian heritage—apparently meaning he was demonstrative and prone to physical contact.

At the same time that the board voted to terminate Festa, it also voted to reinstate a longtime vice president, Arthur O'Neill, whom Festa had fired earlier this winter, to his former position, the officials said. O'Neill's termination had caused significant friction between Festa and the board because O'Neill, who had worked at the Carroll Center for thirty-nine years, in many ways served as the face of the school to the larger community.

The two officials said law enforcement authorities have not been contacted because board members and the lawyers did not believe Festa's actions represented anything criminal. But it was a level of contact that the board deemed inappropriate for the institution's leader. The officials took pains to point out that the board of directors acted swiftly and decisively as soon as they were presented with the information about Festa. Most members first learned of the allegations when they received a notice late last week about the meeting. They gathered in a law office; listened to a presentation; and, after some debate, voted to seek Festa's resignation. One problem under Festa's leadership, officials said, is that the Carroll Center has suffered from lackluster fund-raising in the face of a stuttering economy, and its marketing efforts have lagged over time.

The school is revered by many of those who have turned to it during a painful time in their lives--after they have lost their sight. The school, which includes dorms for some students, specializes in giving new life skills to those who become blind, rather than people who are born without the ability to see. It offers an independent living program and a vocational transition program, among others, for all ages. It also hosts a widely lauded regatta for blind sailors on Boston Harbor.

But in many ways the Carroll Center is overshadowed by the Perkins School for the Blind, located about three miles and less than ten minutes away in Watertown. The Perkins School claims Helen Keller on its rolls of former students. It has a sprawling campus, a star-studded board of directors, and lists $229 million in assets on the latest filing with the Massachusetts attorney general's office. The Carroll Center, by comparison, claims $8.3 million in assets, according to the state filings.

For Festa this is an unlikely career development. He has been a longtime and well-regarded fixture in Melrose politics and then on Beacon Hill, a vocal progressive who, in nearly nine years in the Legislature, fought for gay marriage, more democracy in the often autocratic House chamber, and for an overhaul of state criminal sentencing laws.

He was appointed the state secretary of elder affairs by Patrick in October 2007, only to abruptly leave in January 2009, after reportedly butting heads with JudyAnn Bigby, the Health and Human Services secretary. When Festa left the elder affairs job, key advocates of the elderly sharply criticized the administration, saying that if it wasn't for Festa, cuts in senior programs would have been significantly worse.

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