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Mass. Maritime probes trustee on ethics

Work contracts, actions at issue

Massachusetts Maritime Academy is investigating allegations that a school trustee, a decorated state trooper, steered contracts worth thousands of dollars to friends.

Also being investigated are allegations that the trustee, Kenneth P. Halloran , persuaded a student who was on pain medication to hire him as a lawyer. However, the student involved said yesterday that Halloran did not improperly solicit legal work and that the allegation grew out of a misunderstanding .

Governor Mitt Romney, through a spokesman, called both allegations against Halloran "very troubling."

The allegations, first reported by the Cape Cod Times, have brought calls from parents for Halloran's removal as trustee. Parents are particularly outraged about allegations by the student's father that Halloran , a lawyer, appeared at the student's hospital bed and offered his legal services. The student had been injured in an October 2005 accident in which an alleged drunk driver struck him and killed his friend as they stood outside a bar.

The student, Stephen Bickerton Jr., said yesterday that his parents had agreed to have Halloran act as his lawyer a few days before Halloran paid him a visit at the hospital and presented him with the contract. The student said he thought Halloran's behavior had been appropriate. But his father, as well as other parents of students, disagreed.

"If he's done these things, he probably really should step aside," said Harry Wood, co-treasurer of the academy's parents association. "I would like to see him do that and just leave."

Halloran did not return phones calls yesterday. Halloran, a state trooper, was awarded a state medal of merit for rescuing two people from a burning car in 1990 on the Southeast Expressway.

Romney has the authority to remove Halloran, who was appointed to a five-year term by Acting Governor Jane Swift. Halloran's term expires in March. Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said the governor cannot take action until the academy board's investigation is complete.

The controversy is occurring less than a year after trustees at the 1,000-student public college in Buzzards Bay demanded the resignation of the school's head, Admiral Rick Gurnon. Gurnon was fired by trustees after they alleged he had disrespected their authority, but the state Board of Higher Education reinstated him. Gurnon said he had no comment about the current controversy.

Jay Austin , chairman of the academy's board of trustees, said, "We're taking decisive action and we're seeking counsel, and we're going to sort it out."

Austin said the academy will rely on the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers to investigate whether Halloran inappropriately sought to act as legal counsel for Bickerton, a former student trustee. The Board of Bar Overseers declined to say whether it was investigating Halloran.

Bickerton's father, Stephen Bickerton Sr., said Halloran showed up at the hospital when his son was on painkillers and persuaded him to sign a contract making Halloran his lawyer and giving Halloran one third of any damages won through a lawsuit. He said his son's account is incorrect and he never spoke with Halloran about retaining his legal services before Halloran visited his son . "This was very upsetting," said the senior Bickerton. "He took advantage."

Stephen Bickerton Jr., an academy senior, said Halloran's intentions were honorable.

"It's all a big misunderstanding," the younger Bickerton said, and added that his thinking was not impaired by medication at the time he signed the contract.

Massachusetts ethics laws bar lawyers from soliciting business involving a fee from a prospective client who the lawyer knows is physically or emotionally unable to exercise judgment. They also bar a lawyer in most cases from soliciting business in person.

Austin, the academy board chairman, said the board also had learned of allegations that Halloran in 2004 and 2005 might have steered several contracts, totaling $23,000, to friends. One $10,000 contract was awarded to Bo Lyons , a former Northeastern University head football coach, to advise the college on athletic field construction, Austin said. Academy officials knew Halloran played football at Northeastern , he said.

Lyons said Halloran had contacted him about the work and then introduced him to academy officials. Lyons said he understood it was clear to officials that Halloran had played for him.

State college and university trustees are considered state employees and subject to state ethics laws, which prohibit them from creating the appearance of a conflict of interest or using their positions to secure contracts for themselves or people they know. Halloran would have had to disclose his connections with the contract recipients to the governor; the governor's office said it had no disclosures in its records.

The State Ethics Commission would not comment on whether it was investigating Halloran.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.

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