NEW BEDFORD — Weeks after the Southcoast Health board of trustees announced the removal of Keith A. Hovan as president and CEO, key questions remain unanswered about both his employment status and the Rochester Police Department’s application for a felony charge against him.

Although the board announced in late January that an acting CEO would continue filling Hovan’s role, the board’s statement did not say whether Hovan could still be employed by Southcoast Health in some other capacity, or whether he will continue to collect his CEO-level salary.

Hovan received more than $2.5 million in compensation in 2019, according to the nonprofit’s tax form, and took a paid leave of absence starting in November of 2021. 

The Light asked Southcoast Health if Hovan was immediately removed, if he is barred from holding other positions with the system, and what the process is for hiring the next CEO.

Internal and hired spokespeople have said the system has no comment.

The Light asked Southcoast Health about a possible settlement as part of his removal and if a search is underway for a new leader.

Southcoast Health spokesperson Katie Cox said by email this month that the organization has no comment at this time. 

The Light asked Cox for a comment from the board on Hovan’s removal, and attempted to reach all the board members by email, phone or social media for comment on his removal.

Board of Trustees members as of Feb. 1:

  • Salman Bashir, M.D.
  • Louis A. Cabral
  • James J. Coogan, Esq. 
  • Ilana Feinerman, M.D.
  • Dennis J. Fusco
  • Donald G. Giumetti
  • Christopher M. Hodgson
  • Helena DaSilva Hughes
  • Elizabeth Huidekoper
  • Heidi Kostin
  • W. Hugh M. Morton
  • Jonathan Rounds
  • Jason Rua
  • Jay Schachne, M.D. 
  • Carmen Sylvester
  • Ana Laus, M.D
Source: Solomon McCown and Cence

The Light did not receive a response from any board members, other than Helena DaSilva Hughes, who said she cannot talk about Southcoast Health, citing board policies. Cox said the board will “refrain from public comment at this time.”

Questions on the criminal proceedings have also not been answered, with the Rochester police chief not responding to numerous inquiries, and the Wareham clerk magistrate stating information related to Hovan’s hearing is not public. 

Hovan’s case is just one example of the secrecy inherent in these court proceedings, called show cause hearings, which went under review by the Massachusetts Trial Court starting in late 2018. As the court system considers revisions to the standards that guide these hearings, some elected officials and First Amendment advocates want to see these hearings opened across the board, citing a need for transparency and accountability in the court system. 

“The only way we can make sure that these hearings are operating in a fair and just way is if the public is able to oversee them in a way where the court is accountable for the decisions it makes,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.

Hovan’s case

In November of 2021, Hovan was charged with domestic assault and battery. Following his arrest, police confiscated dozens of legal firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition that were securely stored in his home, records show. 

Shortly after, the Rochester Police Department filed an application for a criminal complaint against Hovan, alleging he had in his possession some illegal firearms magazines or feeding devices. Police were seeking a felony charge, a report states. 

It remains unknown, however, how the matter was adjudicated, whether Hovan was charged with a felony, and if his case has even been heard yet due to the closed-door show cause hearing. 

Clerk magistrate hearing kept closed to public

After a bench trial, the domestic assault and battery charge against Hovan was dismissed when the alleged victim chose not to testify. He was next due to appear in court in January for his show cause hearing on the potential firearm-related charge.

During or following a hearing, the clerk magistrate — an official nominated by the governor — decides whether there is probable cause for the crime and subsequently, whether the application for a criminal complaint is approved and the individual charged. 

Under Massachusetts court standards, called the “complaint standards,” show cause hearings and their associated records are presumptively not public record. But, if the application for the criminal complaint is issued following the hearing, then any record presented to the magistrate during the hearing (including recordings) becomes a part of the case file and public record unless impounded by a judge, per the standards.

The Light confirmed the original date of Hovan’s show cause hearing, Jan. 10, but it was rescheduled following The Light’s successful petition to halt the hearing pending review from the Supreme Judicial Court on a motion for public access, a request that was subsequently denied. 

In response to a request for the new date, an employee in the Wareham court clerk’s office stated it was not public information. During another call with the clerk’s office, an employee said nothing appeared in the system when searching Hovan’s name. 

Beth Stone, spokesperson for Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz’s office, said by email that The Light would have to check with the court or Rochester Police in response to questions on the hearing and application for the felony charge.

Rochester Police Chief Robert Small Jr., whose department filed the application for the charge, has not responded to several inquiries on the status of the application or the outcome of the show cause hearing. 

Hovan’s attorney, Christopher M. Markey, has not responded to the same inquiries.

The Light requested a copy of the audio recording from Wareham District Court Clerk Magistrate Daryl G. Manchester for Hovan’s hearing. The state Supreme Judicial Court in 2019 ordered clerks to record all hearings in order to promote trust and transparency in the system. 

In response to The Light’s request, Manchester said such information is not public. 

“As you are aware, a Single Justice of the SJC denied your petition for public access to Keith Hovan’s show cause hearing,” Manchester said by email. “Therefore, in compliance with the show cause hearing procedure all relevant information regarding Mr. Hovan’s show cause hearing, as is the case with all show cause hearings, is not available to the public.”

The Light in a follow-up email asked if the criminal complaint against Hovan was not issued following the hearing, given his response that the information was not public. Manchester did not respond. 

Panel reviews show cause hearing guidelines 

The current complaint standards state that while the “open and public character of most court proceedings is well known,” there is no First Amendment right to access show cause hearings. “Such secrecy” protects accused individuals from “undeserved notoriety, embarrassment and disgrace,” the standards state.

“Such secrecy” was an aspect highlighted in the Boston Globe’s 2018 investigative series on show cause hearings, which found disparate outcomes and potential abuses in the system. 

In the fall of 2018, shortly after the Globe’s reporting, then-Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula M. Carey established a group of judges, justices and clerk magistrates to examine the current procedures for show cause hearings, including the factors that guide whether to open the hearings to the public. 

The working group published its report in April of 2019 with proposed revisions, according to a court spokesperson, but continued to work on and review the standards into 2020, a participating magistrate said. 

The current complaint standards took effect in 2008.

The court officials recommended updating forms to provide greater clarity on the hearing process, training all magistrates with the release of updated standards, and creating a form for the public to use to request a hearing be opened or records be made public.

On factors regarding whether a hearing should remain closed or be opened, some of which are laid out in the current standards, the court officials said more guidance and clarification should be included.

As noted in the working group’s report, a show cause hearing is held “‘for the protection and benefit of the accused,’ and ‘allows the clerk-magistrate to screen out baseless complaints with minimal harm to the accused’s reputation.’” 

The Light requested interviews with several of the Trial Court working group members, many of whom declined. Group co-chair Daniel J. Hogan, a Boston clerk magistrate, said by email he was unavailable to speak that week. Another co-chair, Boston Judge Kenneth J. Fiandaca, was available to respond to questions in writing, according to Trial Court spokesperson Erika Gully-Santiago. 

Gully-Santiago did not provide a reason when asked why the judge could only respond to questions in writing, instead providing a written statement from the court.

“The Trial Court has been working to implement both the reconstituted Working Group’s proposed revisions and the Boston Globe decision,” the statement said. “The implementation of that work was delayed due to technological and operational challenges that were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic but is continuing.”

The statement said the group developed proposed revisions, new and revised forms, and recommendations for recording the hearings and collecting data on them.

Wrentham Clerk Magistrate Michelle L. Kelley, who was a member of the working group, said all the recommendations the group issued are important and that they spent a lot of time going through the different issues. 

“It was frankly one of the best, most important committees that I’ve served on,” Kelley said. “We spent significant time going through a lot of general information and very detailed information, as it relates to the show cause hearing and again the forms, the process, things that we felt needed clarification … I was really pleased with the final product.”

She said the standards the courts currently follow work, but that she “definitely” thinks some of the changes are important. 

“I would assume that the Trial Court will take this issue up again. But it’s not an easy fix … There are substantial changes that we would need to make,” Kelley said.

State Rep. Antonio F. D. Cabral is calling for even more substantial changes with a bill that would make show cause hearings presumptively public. 

Instead of petitioning for the hearing to be opened, people (such as the accused) would need to petition the court to close the hearing, according to Cabral’s bill, which lists state Reps. Christopher Hendricks and Michelle M. DuBois as signatories. 

Show cause hearings consider both misdemeanor and felony cases, and can cover a range of possible crimes including domestic violence, drug possession, shoplifting or drunken driving. Complaints can be brought by individuals or law enforcement, and the hearings often occur when the individual has not been arrested. 

“No other state in the country allows for adult criminal initial proceedings to be conducted in private,” Cabral wrote in an opinion piece for The Light. “What was reasoned to protect individuals from personal embarrassment, has in fact led to criminal charges disappearing, Black and Latino individuals charged disproportionately to whites, domestic violence charges disregarded, and the privileged and connected being protected.”

Cabral did not name any specific cases.

Jennifer Nelson, a senior staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said it is “problematic” that show cause hearings continue to take place largely outside the public eye. 

“I think one of the most important aspects of our criminal justice system in the United States is the idea that criminal matters, criminal judicial proceedings are designed and meant to be open to the public,” Nelson said. “I think the reason why there needs to be a change in this area is because as prior reporting has shown, these show cause hearings are now being used to handle accusations of really serious crimes.”

Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand public access to government, said the working group’s recommendations are a step in the right direction, but that they don’t provide a full solution. 

“The solution is more in line with what Representative Cabral is proposing,” Silverman said, “because it prioritizes transparency and our right to know what is occurring in our courts.”

Though recognizing the COVID-19 pandemic has made things challenging, he said changes to how the state’s court system conducts these proceedings are long overdue.

“You had the big series reported by the Boston Globe that showed all the inequities within the system,” Silverman said, “and here we are several years after that without any meaningful changes made.”

Email Anastasia E. Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org.

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