Attorney general race hinges on Station fire plea bargain

Allegations against Lynch '87 may give Harsch last-minute boost

Friday, November 3, 2006

Republican Bill Harsch’s campaign for Rhode Island attorney general received an unexpected boost Wednesday following public accusations that his Democratic opponent, current Attorney General Patrick Lynch ’87, lied intentionally about his involvement in the plea bargain of the owners of The Station nightclub in Warwick.

The Station made national headlines in 2003 when a pyrotechnic display sparked a fire and the club burned to the ground, killing around 100 people.

Kathleen Hagerty, the defense attorney for The Station owners Michael and Jeffrey Derdarian, released a series of e-mails between herself and the lead prosecutor in the Derdarians’ case, William Ferland, to substantiate her claim that Lynch’s “continued denial of any responsibility or involvement by his office (in the plea of Jeffrey Derdarian) is simply false and misleading to the public,” Hagerty told the Providence Journal.

Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan accepted pleas of no contest to 100 counts of manslaughter from each Derdarian brother on Sept. 29. Michael Derdarian was sentenced to serve four years in a minimum-security prison work-release program and his brother, Jeffrey Derdarian, was sentenced to 500 hours of community service.

On Sept. 20, before the plea bargains were publicly announced, Lynch released a public letter distancing himself from the Derdarain brothers’ pleas and saying that Darigan accepted “those pleas without the agreement of my office.”

Lynch’s denial of involvement in the plea bargains came as a surprise to Hagerty.

The correspondence released by Hagerty does not mention directly the plea bargain discussed by the defense and prosecution for the case, though it is implied in many of the e-mails.

“I look forward to what will now be my third career,” Ferland wrote in a Sept. 20 e-mail to Hagerty, concerned about the security of his job because of his involvement in the plea negotiations denied by the attorney general.

“‘In light of the Attorney General’s vehement (public) opposition’ I told the truth, that Judge Darigan was simply honoring the disposition previously offered by the (attorney general’s office),” Hagerty wrote on the same day in an e-mail response to Ferland.

“Personally, I hope you don’t choose to fall on your sword for (Lynch). His decision to release that letter to the press without letting us see it first and more importantly making what the Judge was trying to accomplish futile and letting these poor people find out in that way is unforgivable,” Hagerty wrote in the e-mail.

Lynch has maintained that he had no intention of accepting a plea bargain that did not sentence both Derdarian brothers to jail time.

“We expressed our opinion and our objection, but the judge imposed (the) sentence,” Lynch told The Herald Monday. He said it “just doesn’t compute” to let Jeffrey Derdarian go without jail time when Daniel Biechele, the manager of the rock band Great White and individual responsible for the pyrotechnics, was sentenced in May to four years in jail.

The Derdarian pleas have been the central issue of Harsch’s campaign since before this week’s allegations. In recent months, Harsch has criticized Lynch for his decision not to prosecute the fire marshal who had most recently inspected The Station.

“(Either) the three top prosecutors in the attorney general’s office were out of control or (Lynch) lied,” Harsch told The Herald Wednesday.

“I will conduct an investigation (when I am elected), and I will put people under oath and that will put them in a position to tell the truth or perjure themselves,” Harsch added.

Harsch said he is wary of Lynch holding the power associated with the office of the attorney general.

“He is prepared to lie. He is prepared to use the official staff for political objectives. He is willing to use the trial of 100 deaths for political reasons,” Harsch said of Lynch. “I think it is obscene. What he is trying to do is damage control. … I think Patrick Lynch had buyer’s remorse.”

Lynch dismissed Hagerty’s allegations in a Wednesday interview with The Herald.

“She’s a disgruntled former employee of the office and her motivations beyond that are not clear,” Lynch said. “My office would never agree to a settlement for Jeff Derdarian anything other than jail time.”

Asked if he lied to the public about his involvement in The Station fire case, Lynch said, “I think the record is terrifically clear – not even using my own words but using the judge’s words, using Bill Ferland’s words. Time and time again I made it abundantly clear that I thought Jeff Derdarian should go to jail. Any other allegations are ludicrous and unfounded.”

According to Brown University polls, Lynch’s February 41-point lead over Harsch diminished to a 32-point lead in June, before the Derdarian brothers’ plea bargain was announced.

Over half of voters in a Rhode Island College poll conducted Oct. 2-4 said the plea bargain was an important factor in who they would vote for in the attorney general’s race. Among those voters, Lynch led Harsch by nine points. Amongst all voters polled, Lynch led his Republican challenger by 14 points, with a 4.5-percent margin of error.

Harsch said the recent light shed on Lynch’s involvement in the plea agreement will change voters’ minds, making previous polls irrelevant.

“These stories have a tendency to unravel,” Harsch said. “The attorney general has done his best to try to contain the damage and you are watching a guy … fall away. It is like the petals of a flower dropping off one by one.”

A former legal council to President Jimmy Carter, Harsch said he affiliated with the Republican party in this election to avoid a three-way race. He said he has not taken money from the state or national Republican Party to avoid entanglement with special interest groups that may have donated money to the GOP.

“My association with the Republican party is because they are a minority in the state,” Harsch said. “At the moment I look at the Democratic party in Rhode Island as no more than the insiders.”

Harsch said Lynch is one of these Democratic political insiders. Lynch’s brother, Bill, is the chairman of the state Democratic Party and his father was mayor of Pawtucket.

For the period between Oct. 10 and Oct. 30, Lynch’s campaign spent $365,000 on advertising – including $1,500 on Spanish-language advertising – which was four times as much as his opponent. Harsch’s campaign spent $66,000 on bulk mailings, print and limited television advertising.

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