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Chokas-related legal fees at $163,000 and growing

Stonington — The school system has now spent more than $163,000 on legal fees related to the controversy surrounding former high school teacher Timothy Chokas.

The updated tally became available this week after the school system released bills it has paid since Jan. 1 in response to a Freedom of Information request from The Day. Last year, the school system spent $96,776 on legal fees related to the employment and 2019 resignation of Chokas, who was accused of sexually harassing numerous female students over his 13-year tenure. School officials meanwhile have been criticized for their handling of complaints against Chokas that date back to a least 2013, according to school records.

The school system’s legal fees, though, will exceed $163,024, as bills released for two of the law firms it has used only show work through May 31. One of those firms filed briefs and appeared on behalf of the school system at a July 22 Freedom of Information Commission hearing on two appeals by The Day. Meanwhile, attorney Christine Chinni, who the school board hired to investigate how school officials, including Superintendent Van Riley and high school Principal Mark Friese, handled the complaints, has submitted bills through June 29. But she has continued to work on her report, which is expected to be complete later this month.

The school system could incur future legal fees based on the outcome of Chinni’s investigation, a separate review by the state Office of the Child Advocate and if it decides to appeal a July state Freedom of Information Commission decision that upheld a complaint by The Day.

In the FOI case, the commission ordered the school system to release to The Day an unredacted January 2019 memo from Friese to Riley that contains a statement by an unidentified female student, who alleged that on numerous occasions Chokas touched another unidentified female student and made comments that made her feel uncomfortable.

That complaint led to school officials allowing Chokas to resign with his full $81,396 pay and benefits for the remainder of the school year and agreeing not to fire him or disclose any information concerning his employment, except as required by law.

The school system had refused to release an unredacted copy of the complaint when The Day requested it, arguing it was a student record.

Appealing the Freedom of Information Commission ruling to the state Appellate Court would require the school board to expend more legal fees.

New Board of Education Chairman Frank Todisco said last week that he has instructed Nick Grello, one of the school system’s attorneys, to not take any action on the FOI case until Grello has an opportunity to meet with the board to discuss FOI issues and costs. That meeting is expected to take place within the next week in executive session. School board members have said they were not informed by school officials about developments in FOI matters and their related costs.

At a July 24 meeting, school board member Jack Morehouse said board members read in The Day about FOI developments involving the school system and “are not attached to the actions being taken” by school officials.

The new billing records released by the school system show $20,129 was paid since the beginning of the year to Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin. Almost all of the details of what work was performed for the school system was redacted from the bills.

The few items that were not redacted show about $1,200 of the work was in relation to the review by the state Office of the Child Advocate, which is looking at school system policies regarding sexual harassment and whether school officials followed them in the Chokas matter.

One of the few unredacted items shows that on March 2, a Shipman & Goodwin attorney billed the school system for a “telephone conference with administration regarding investigation, review investigator’s proposal and related legal issues, communication to investigator.”

The school board’s investigation is looking at how school administrators handled the complaints against Chokas. The call came five days after the school board hired Chinni to conduct the investigation.

Another $34,393 was paid to Zangari, Cohn, Cuthbertson, Duhl & Grello, the firm that has been handling FOI issues for the school system. The reasons for all of that firm’s work were redacted from the bills except for items related to The Day’s FOI appeal. An attorney for that firm sent the redacted bills to The Day. The FOI Commission dismissed the Day’s other appeal because the newspaper had not filed it within the required 30 days.

The bills for Chinni total $11,276 through June 29. When she was hired by the board, she estimated the probe would cost about $20,000. All of the reasons for her work were released.

In releasing the bills, attorney Kyle McClain wrote that certain information has been redacted because it is exempt from disclosure, such as records of strategy or negotiations with respect to collective bargaining, information concerning names or addresses of students and records of communications privileged by the attorney-client relationship.

“As a reminder as to the latter exemption, attorney billing statement and time records that reveal litigation strategy and/or the nature of the services performed are protected by the attorney-client privilege. Nevertheless, because exemptions under the FOIA are permissive, the District, in good faith, has exercised its discretion to leave unredacted the descriptions of legal services contained in the bills that are specifically responsive to your request in good faith and in the interest of transparency,” he wrote.

Many former students have told The Day and posted on social media that Chokas repeatedly touched female students inappropriately and made inappropriate comments to them dating back to 2004.

Riley and Friese testified under oath at an FOI hearing last fall, that the various reports lodged against Chokas by students, referred to in school documents and emails in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019, were not considered complaints but “reports” and “concerns.” This meant complaints were not placed in Chokas’ personnel file and he was never disciplined.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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