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Ex-teacher gets to keep his benefits

BOSTON — The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday that a former high school teacher in Amherst convicted of child pornography charges can keep his retirement benefits.

The court ruled that Ronald T. Garney should still receive benefits of nearly $2,400 a month because his crimes were not connected to his former job. He was a ninth-grade science teacher in Amherst and was arrested in 2006 for the purchase and possession of an extensive collection of child pornography.

During oral arguments in April, Garney’s attorney, Michael C. Donahue of South Easton, told the court that there was no direct link between Garney’s position as a teacher and his off-the-job criminal offenses. Garney’s conduct, while reprehensible, was private, from his home and involved his personal computer, he argued at the time.

“I think the court clearly differentiated that there are things that are going to send you to jail, things that cost you your license and things that can cost you your career,” Donahue said in an interview with the Gazette after Monday’s ruling. “If it’s not directly related to your work, it’s not going to implicate a pension you’ve earned over 20-plus years.”

He added, “It shouldn’t cost you your pension, at least the way the statutes are written.”

Under state law, a public employee must forfeit his pension if convicted of a criminal offense involving the laws that apply to his office or position.

The case had been brought to the Supreme Judicial Court by the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System, which sought to overturn a Worcester Superior Court decision in 2012 upholding Garney’s right to collect a $2,393 monthly pension check.

Garney, 67, pleaded guilty in December 2007 to 11 counts of the purchase and possession of child pornography. He had been identified by federal authorities in 2004 as part of an online investigation of international commercial child pornography websites.

A raid by police of Garney’s home turned up 575 images of child pornography on his home computer and a library of 85 videos of child pornography organized by gender, according to court documents. The materials contained images of children, from toddlers to early teenagers, involved in sexual acts. Many of the victims were later identified, and none were from the Amherst schools.

In February 2008, Garney was sentenced in Hampshire Superior Court to 2½ to 3 years in state prison followed by 10 years of probation and was required to register as a sex offender. He resigned his position in December 2006, a few weeks after he was informed by then-School Superintendent Jere Hochman that the district intended to fire him.

Garney applied for his pension in August 2007, after his arrest and before his conviction. He received pension benefits totaling $31,119 from the time of his conviction until his benefits stopped in February 2009 after a retirement system hearing.

In arguing the retirement system’s case, attorney Robert G. Fabino of Cambridge told the Gazette in April that it was seeking the court’s guidance on what he described as a “very serious issue.”

Fabino could not be reached for comment Monday, but in his brief filed with the Supreme Judicial Court, he had argued that there is a link between Garney’s criminal offenses and his professional position because teachers are entrusted with special responsibilities to protect children and serve as examples of “virtue and morality.”

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