Audit finds lack of transparency in New Bedford court records

The state’s trial court has failed to make information on closed criminal cases in New Bedford District Court available to the public, as required by the trial court’s own rules, a recent audit of the court system has found. 

The audit, published last week, was conducted by the office of State Auditor Diana DiZoglio, who was sworn in as state auditor this year and has made government transparency a leading issue. The purpose of the audit was to determine whether the court system had made closed criminal case information remotely accessible to the public, which is required by the court’s own rules.

“If the Massachusetts Trial Court does not ensure that criminal case information is remotely accessible to the public, then individuals cannot access this information without physically visiting the courthouse, which may not be possible for all individuals,” the state auditor’s office wrote in an April 18 news release. 

The audit found that, although the New Bedford District Court entered all required information into the state’s online court system, it was never made available on the state’s public online portal. It clarified that the state trial court is responsible for maintaining information on the online court portal.

“Massachusetts Trial Court Officials did not provide a reason why this information was not available remotely to the public,” the audit wrote.

The audit also examined whether at least one clerk attended all criminal sessions of the court, as also required, and found that the district court was in compliance. 

The audit focused on a period between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2022, during which the New Bedford District Court was led by embattled former First Justice Douglas Darnbrough. After resigning under mysterious circumstances in November 2023, he was named in the appeal of two men attempting to overturn their convictions on the grounds that Darnbrough was allegedly involved in an affair with a prosecutor, which an attorney claimed would have jeopardized the integrity of their cases. The allegations remain unsubstantiated, though in February the appeals were brought to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. 

Judge Joseph Harrington has since filled in as acting first justice. The audit stated that he encouraged and made his team available to the audit, though the District Court did not provide a response to the audit, according to the news statement. 

The lack of transparency is not unique to records in the New Bedford District Court, said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, which promotes public access to government. He described it as a quiet but sweeping issue within the state’s court system, in which records from many district courts are not made public. The organization recently published a letter of concern, calling for the state trial court to follow its own rules of public access. 

“They aren’t following their own rules. That’s a problem,” Silverman said, in a recent interview. “It’s an issue that’s prevalent in many, if not all courts in Massachusetts.” 

State Auditor DiZoglio campaigned aggressively on the South Coast, appearing multiple times on local news talk station WBSM. She served a combined 10 years in both the House and Senate before winning the state auditor’s office and often voiced her commitment to government transparency. Her campaign focused on investigating the “closed-door operation” of the state Legislature, a contentious issue that has received significant pushback from the state Legislature and Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who has attempted to block DiZoglio’s efforts. 

The audit of New Bedford District Court is a smaller, less contentious issue, but legal experts interviewed by The Light said it is in line with DiZoglio’s push to bring more transparency to both the state and local levels of government. 

“It’s important to look at all corners of government to make sure the rules are being followed,” Silverman said. “To have that information online makes it very easy for the public to monitor cases and get a better understanding of what’s happening within the court systems.” 

Email Will Sennott at [email protected].

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