BOSTON (State House News Service) — A Parole Board member seeking reappointment to a second term faced allegations Wednesday from a former colleague that she brings "chaos and destruction of morale" to the agency.
Colette Santa has been a member of the Parole Board since 2017, when she was confirmed by the Governor's Council on a 5-2 vote following an extensive career in corrections.
She served as a warden and regional director in Puerto Rico's correctional system before starting work in the Massachusetts Department of Correction in 2009, and was the Parole Board's transitional services chief up until Gov. Charlie Baker tapped her to serve as a board member.
Parole Board members serve five-year terms. If the governor chooses to reappoint a member, they go through another interview process with the elected Governor's Council and are again subject to a confirmation vote.
Santa's council hearing this year has dragged on through multiple postponements and a continuance. On Monday, two days before the council was finally set to interview Santa, former Parole Board member Lucy Soto-Abbe emailed all the councilors with harsh words for the nominee, saying she "observed that [Santa] lacked the necessary skills to perform effectively in this position."
"The quantity of questions asked by her during [parole] hearings, including lifer hearings, were limited. When she did ask questions, they lacked substance and quality. She has brought nothing to the agency other than chaos and destruction of morale," Soto-Abbe wrote.
Soto-Abbe went on to allege that Santa, during her time as the board's transitional services chief, had "ruled with intimidation tactics, such as denying employees time off, violating civil service rules, cyberbullying employees via email, punishing employees if they spoke up, and punishing employees after being sued for civil service violations."
Soto-Abbe served on the board from 2011 to 2019, including two years alongside Santa.
Councilor Chris Iannella (D-Boston) tried to get to the bottom of those charges, along with an anonymous list of complaints and allegations against Santa that Soto-Abbe said came from "several staff members."
"[Soto-Abbe] hasn't spoken against other people, but she's speaking against you. Did you read the letter from her?" asked Iannella.
No, Santa said, she just learned about the letter on Wednesday.
Ianella asked if she wanted to see a copy of it.
"No, not really," she replied.
Santa said she had a good working relationship with Soto-Abbe during their time together on the board.
Asked what she thought Soto-Abbe meant by writing that she "ruled with intimidation tactics," Santa said, "No need to intimidate. If I only ask you to do your job, if I'm only asking you to do your job, that's a part of the collective bargaining agreement, you have to do your job. I'm not going to ask you to do anything that is outside of your job description."
Asked again why Soto-Abbe would state that, she said she was "baffled," a word Santa repeated in response to other questions.
"That's her perspective of things," Santa said, adding in a followup answer that she did not think Soto-Abbe was telling the truth.
Councilor Marilyn Devaney (D-Watertown) said she couldn't believe all the allegations were "made up."
"You have equal letters saying that I'm doing good," Santa said. " ... You are not reading the good letters. Why is that?"
"I'm going by -- I've seen you in person," Devaney replied. "I've gone to the Parole Board hearings. I've seen you not ask questions, and asking irrelevant questions."
Councilor Robert Jubinville (D-Milton) said a lot of criticism he's heard is related to Santa's lack of active questioning in those parole hearings.
Santa said that her method in hearings is to gain information from reading a parole applicant's file, records of other hearings, and comments by other board members, then observing the applicant's demeanor in the hearing.
She said sometimes she "just want[s] to observe."
Asked what she picks up from that quiet observation, Santa recalled one applicant who was "really sad," adding that "that's what I took from that hearing, when he sat there."
"Well, I gotta tell ya, if I was in state prison I'd be sad, every day I was there," Jubinville responded.
Councilor Eileen Duff (D-Gloucester) zeroed in on Santa's use of state employee vacation time and said the amount of weeks off per year "doesn't really seem to add up" -- and that she thought Santa "might owe the commonwealth money for time off."
"You're saying that in 2021 you earned eight weeks off? No other member of the Parole Board took that much time," Duff said.
The back-and-forth between the nominee and the councilor became somewhat heated.
"I don't know the math that you're using," Santa said.
"I'm counting. It's arithmetic, actually, it's not even math," Duff replied.
One of the opposition witnesses who led off the hearing was Kristyn Huey of Prisoners' Legal Services, a former public defender in Boston who served with Santa on the Legislature's Special Commission on Structural Racism in the Parole Process.
Created as part of the 2020 policing reform law, the commission was led by Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Rep. Andy Vargas and issued its final report in December 2021.
Huey said it was "frustrating" serving with Santa on the commission.
"I was extremely disappointed by her lack of participation, by her defensiveness, and by the fact that it seemed like she just did not know what was going on, or if it wasn't that she didn't know, that she didn't want to provide the information," Huey said, adding that Santa was the lone commission member who did not vote in support of the final report.
Santa said she did not vote on it because she felt Gov. Charlie Baker "wasn't provided enough time to respond to the report."
That report contained recommendations on how to make the parole process more equitable, and Santa said she had given copies to Parole Board Chair Gloriann Moroney and Executive Director Kevin Keefe, but indicated she left it up to them to decide how widely the report would be shared within the agency.
"You didn't share it with the other board members?" asked Duff.
Santa shrugged as she said, "That was for the chair..."
Probing Santa's involvement in the commission work, Duff asked the broad question, "What is structural racism?"
Santa initially replied that "it's a long definition that I'd rather read" and "I don't have it with me, but I can read it from the report," before saying, "It's like, it's perpetuating racism for, like, policies, procedures that are in place."
Councilor Joe Ferreira (D-Swansea), a reliable vote for Baker nominees, said during a mid-day recess that he was "conflicted" on Santa's nomination.
Devaney said during the recess that she couldn't see herself voting for Santa "unless there's some miracle." She was one of two opposition votes in 2017, along with Iannella.
Duff cited phone calls she's received from career employees at the Parole Board "who have no political affiliation, but are really disturbed by [Santa]," adding that "you have to listen to them."
The Governor's Council in recent memory has rejected just one Baker nominee -- Sherquita HoSang, who had also been tapped for the Parole Board.
Councilor Paul DePalo (D-Worcester), who chaired Wednesday's hearing, made a point of saying he was "really proud" of the council's hearing last summer on the HoSang nomination.
In the face of numerous criticisms in the Council Chamber, Santa was often concise but defiant.
"You have a lot of people who don't like you," Iannella told Santa.
"And a lot of people that like me, too," said Santa.
"It's an unbelievable amount of people who are against you. To me, it's mindblowing," Iannella said. " ... Talking a lot more than one or two. I mean, are they all wrong?"
"The negative? Yes," Santa answered.
Announcing his choice in May to nominate Santa for another five-year term, Baker wrote in a prepared statement: "Colette Santa's experience as a Parole Board member and prior service to the Commonwealth have prepared her well for continued service on the Board."
In the same press release, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito wrote: "Colette Santa's knowledge of the Parole Board and experience serving the Commonwealth will bring valuable insight to the Parole Board and those appearing before it."
The council is scheduled to meet next Wednesday, when it could vote on whether to keep Santa on the board for another five years.
Written by Sam Doran/SHNS.