The same type of hush money payments Donald Trump is accused of using to silence adult film star Stormy Daniels are currently being investigated in Massachusetts by State Auditor Dianna DiZoglio.
Daniels signed a nondisclosure agreement with Trump’s attorney in October 2016, agreeing to keep their alleged affair quiet in exchange for $130,000. She later broke that agreement by speaking publicly and alleged that Trump’s lawyer used "intimidation and coercive tactics" to get her to sign it.
Legal experts like Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston-based attorney who represents victims of clergy sexual abuse, say nondisclosure agreements are often used to silence victims of workplace misconduct on the taxpayer’s dime.
“The government is supposed to be transparent. Courts are meant to be transparent. Secrecy allows only more sexual abuse and evil to occur,” Garabedian said. “Not only does a confidentiality agreement control the victim for the rest of his or her life, but it allows the predator to continue to sexually abuse, take advantage of the vulnerable and not keep children safe.”
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DiZoglio is in the early stages of an investigation into exactly how much money Massachusetts has spent on nondisclosure agreements – something she urged her predecessor to do. Former Auditor Suzanne Bump had said it wasn’t feasible at the time, but legal experts say the public has the right to this information.
“There is no legitimate argument -- in my view -- no legitimate argument that can come from any state official saying, ‘Sorry, but that information is off limits,’” said Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England Law Boston. “If the public interest is at stake, regardless of where the public dollars are being spent, but especially in those cases, then the public has a right to know. There can be no NDAs -- period.”
DiZoglio pushed for a statewide ban while serving in the Legislature. The Massachusetts Senate voted in favor of the ban unanimously in January 2019, but the agreements continue to be used throughout all other branches of state government. And there is currently no documentation required under state law around the process.
“Essentially there could be a free-for-all to fund protection of powerful perpetrators and silencing of victims. That is unacceptable,” DiZoglio told NBC10 Boston.
The agreements are often used with employment termination and severance packages. But the number of nondisclosure agreements issued across state government and the amount spent is difficult to track down.
DiZoglio argues that people can be manipulated and forced to sign these legal agreements, citing her own case of alleged sexual misconduct in 2011. The Methuen Democrat said she was told she wouldn't receive severance pay from her job as an aide in the House of Representatives unless she signed the agreement for silence.
“When you’re simply trying to make ends meet and you need that basic standard severance package just to be able to move on -- that’s not a choice,” DiZoglio said. “You don’t have a choice in those situations.”
Similarly, Daniels has said Trump’s lawyer used "intimidation and coercive tactics" to get her to sign the agreement before the 2016 presidential election. It’s something Garabedian said he often hears from his clients.
“They often sign the confidentiality agreements not knowing the consequences of being revictimized and not realizing they really shouldn’t sign because it’s not in their best interest,” Garabedian said. “In order for the victim to try to heal, there needs to be complete transparency.”