The Globe Says Yes – Creem Says No. What are the Facts?
Cynthia Creem is Senate co-chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. In that position she has the power, along with Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, of deciding the Committee’s agenda. That power allows a legislator to essentially block any bill before that committee. If there is a law that either chair doesn’t want to see passed – it doesn’t matter how much support it has – the chair persons can block it.
She is also a practicing divorce attorney. She charges over $400 per hour to represent clients.
She is a partner at her family’s law firm, Stone Stone & Creem. As a founding partner, Sen. Creem has a financial interest in every case handled by a high end law firm with 4 partners. At over $400 per hour, it is likely that almost every case handled by her firm will consider Alimony.
Massachusetts currently has the nation’s most outdated alimony law. The current law is extremely vague. It outlines a number of factors that a judge may consider such as the length of a marriage, the conduct and “station” of the parties. The fact that the law uses archaic terms like “station” tells you something about its vintage.
The law does not have any guidelines – like we have for child support.Â This means that alimony awards are up to judges to decide based on Â case law. This leaves a great deal of uncertainty at trial and leaves a lot of room for lawyers to negotiate.
The current Alimony Law also has no time limit. In Massachusetts – once alimony is awarded it is for life. This means that for the rest of their lives, whenever alimony payors – or recipients change jobs, remarry, move away or retire there are opportunities to re-litigate alimony. Alimony is the most profitable part of family law.
Alimony actions account for about 30% of the cases heard by Probate and Family Court. This costs Massachusetts families millions every year in legal fees, and costs the state millions in court costs. But it greatly benefits divorce lawyers, and owners of divorce law firms.
Cynthia Creem is both.
The Alimony Reform Bill
On January 13th 2010, a bill to reform alimony, H1785, was filed by Rep. Steven Walsh. This bill would set clear guidelines for alimony, and a reasonable time limit of 13 years. It would have greatly reduced legal fees for families subject to alimony law in two ways. By creating guidelines it would have made negotiating the vast majority of alimony settlements much simpler. By adding a strict time limit it would have limited the number of years that alimony settlements could be re-litigated.
Various bills to reform Alimony have been filed for the past 4 legislative sessions. Sen. Creem has always been opposed to reform. But H1785 had a lot of legislative support – it looked like it really might pass.
So around the time H1785 was filed, Cynthia Creem filed S1616. It would have simply added two words to the current law “and duration.” This bill was filed on behalf of and supported by various Bar associations like the Mass Bar, Women’s Bar, and Boston Bar – which operate like legal industry lobbies.
It would have given judges the ability to set a time limit on alimony. But it would have left all of the profitable uncertainty in the current law.
Passing no bill, or passing S1616 benefits divorce lawyers and law firm owners like Sen. Creem.
H1785 was the real reform bill, sponsored by over 70 legislators. S1616 was a sham industry sponsored bill designed to derail H1785. It was sponsored by only Sen. Creem and Rep. Alison Peisch.
During the last legislative session very little was done on alimony reform. The legislature waited until September to hold public hearings – where hundreds of citizens turned up in support of the bill. The only people who testified in opposition were half a dozen paid lawyer lobbyists.
By early 2010 articles about theÂ embarrassingÂ state of Massachusetts Alimony Law started appearing in major newspapers including the Globe and the Wall Street Journal, and on television, including an excellent series on Boston’s venerable Chronicle.
So in early 2010, Sen. Creem under intense public pressure, finally did convene a task force to study Alimony Law. The task force consists almost exclusively of lobbyists from the Bar associations. Its deliberations are not public. It held no public hearings, took no public testimony, and in 9 months it met only three times. At the end of the session, it did not issue even an interim report. At no point did that task force feel the need to keep the public informed. But its deliberations were often circulated in private to members of the Bar.
We have a copy of their current draft bill here – grabbed off one of the Bar’s web sites where they thought only lawyers would see it. While the draft bill is a great improvement over the current law – it envisions 7 different kinds of alimony.
By the end of the legislative session, since the task force did not finish its work, no bill was referred out of committee – and no reform was passed. Divorce lawyers can profit from the current law for another year, to the detriment of litigants and the taxpayer.
It is not surprising that Cynthia Creem was this year once again awarded Mass Bar’s Legislator of the Year and that lawyers make up a large portion of Creem’s political donors.
Questions of Conflict of Interest
Starting around theÂ beginningÂ of 2010 people began to question if Sen. Creem didn’t have a conflict of interest.
The issue was referred to the State Ethics Commission which ruled that, since the effect of the conflict was “diffuse,” that state ethics laws did not apply. That is since alimony reform would affect divorce lawyers generally, and not just Sen. Creem and her firm there is no conflict. Common Cause agreed saying:
“The conflict of interest law doesnâ€™t apply here because the conflict is speculative.Â The impact is diffused and general in nature.”
By this logic if the president of BP was chair of a committee regulating the oil industry then he would have no conflict of interest in blocking off-shore drilling regulations since it would affect more oil companies than just BP.
Sen. Creem said that she would only have a conflict of interest if she paid or received alimony. That is like saying that only people who buy and sell gasoline have a conflict of interest as oil industry regulators.
A Different Kind of Conflict of Interest
As both a legislator and a practicing attorney, Sen. Creem faces another kind of conflict of interest. As an attorney she has a fiduciary duty to represent the interest of her clients. But as a legislator, when she blocks a bill that would make her client’s cases simpler and less costly she is not representing her client’s interests.
We have heard of several of her former clients who said they were not aware, and that Cynthia Creem did not disclose that while she was representing them, that she was blocking bills that would have helped them. And that when they did become aware that they found new representation.
We have received at least one letter from a former client:
During my divorce proceedings, Cynthia Creem acted as my legal counsel, representing me and arguing on my behalf for what I desired in the outcome of my divorce.Â Â Most prominent amongst my desires was to share physical custody of my children with my soon to be ex-spouse.Â Â Â Â Although Cynthia clearly knew what I desired, she never once told me that in her Senatorial capacity, she was working to oppose shared parenting and also never told me that in Massachusetts, the likelihood of obtaining shared parenting was very small.Â Â Additionally, as her billing rate is in excess of $400 per hour, both in her direct representation of me and through the work done by others employed by Stone, Stone & Creem, I was billed tens of thousands of dollars by her firm.
After my divorce finalized, I subsequently discovered that in her role in the Massachusetts Senate, Cynthia was working to ensure shared parenting almost never happened in the Massachusetts Probate & Family Court system.Â Â I felt as if I had been betrayed.Â Â I donâ€™t understand how it is considered honest, for Cynthia to be working against me in her Senatorial position, but not be required to inform me of such as my representative in the divorce process.Â Â As a Senator, in making the laws I was to be judged by, Cynthia had the opportunity to have more of an impact on my life than she did as an attorney in my case, and in this capacity, she was diligently working against what I desired and felt best for my children.
If I had this information, I could have made an informed choice about hiring Cynthia Creem as my representation.Â Â If I had this information, Cynthia Creem would never have represented me.
We wonder how many other clients of Stone, Stone & Creem feel this way.
Cynthia Creem has not Been Open With Voters
Voters should know that in 2007, Sen. Creem appointed her own sister and law firm co-partner,Â Gayle Stone-Turesky, to the Child Support Guidelines Task Force. Massachusetts already had among the nation’s highest child support guidelines – the task force raised them further – with the largest rises falling on poor working class families.
She says that she spends “enough” time as a legislator and touts her 99% voting record. But she doesn’t say that the majority of the work of being a legislator is not just voting, but drafting bills, hearing testimony, getting consensus and handling the people legislative needs.
Alimony reform was not the only important bill that wasn’t dealt with. The governor’s gun control bill was also not passed, nor was any meaningful reform of the State’s Probation Department patronage problem.
Her committee has the largest backlog of unhandled bills of any legislative committee.
According to a GateHouse News article, in July of 2009, the backlog was so bad that Sen. Creem crammed public testimony on 227 bills in a single day:
Outraged attendees of a Tuesday Judiciary Committee hearing are fuming over the committeeâ€™s decision to hear 227 bills â€“ many of them controversial â€“ in a single day, forcing committee leaders to cut off testimony from speakers on a range of topics, from gun violence, to sexual assault and a bill to add gender identity to the stateâ€™s non-discrimination statute.
More than a few eyebrows were raised during a marathon hearing Tuesday when the Senate chair of the committee, Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), cut off Secretary of Public Safety Kevin Burke and asked him to hurry his testimony on an administration-backed bill aimed at preventing gun violence.
Sen. Creem has stated flatly that she does not believe that she has a conflict of interest. She has said that her guiding principle is what is best for children.
But how does blocking alimony reform help children of divorce? Alimony litigation impoverishes those children’s families.
She said that she only “litigated” a few cases this year. She is parsing her words very carefully. Most divorces are settled out of court and do not reach litigation.
She says that she practices family law “part-time”, but she has not told voters that she has a financial interest in every case represented by her family’s law firm. And even working part time, at $400 per hour, she almost certainly earns much more from family law than her $75,000 per year salary as a legislator.
She hasn’t told voters how many cases per year she represents, how many hours she spends managing her law firm, or how much she earns from her family law practice.