A former middle school teacher and local elected official who was accused last year of misconduct involving female students in his middle school class says the allegations that led to criminal charges against him aren’t true and he has no reason to shy away from public life.
Michael J. Cardin, 40, chairman of the town Planning and Zoning Commission, says that even though he was arrested, the accusations that lead to criminal charges against him are false and he has nothing to be ashamed of or to hide from and is seeking re-election in November.
Cardin’s claim of innocence, however, is sailing into a headwind of doubt and skepticism among some in Tolland including members of his own party who have voiced concerns about having his name appear on the ballot in November. Though a state prosecutor has decided not to pursue the charges against him, he is still dogged by the accusations not in a court of law but in the court of public opinion.
“In the court of public opinion, the facts don’t matter,” Democratic Town Committee Chairman Sara-Beth Nivison said speaking of the perception some in town have of Cardin. “A lot of people hear an accusation and their mind is immediately made up. That is an unfortunate thing.”
The party is expected to present its slate of candidates at a meeting Thursday night; the slate will be voted on during a party caucus to be held later this month.
Nivison said she welcomes Cardin’s decision to seek re-election and his name will be among those placed in nomination at the local Democratic Party caucus later this month. She acknowledges, however, that this will be “a difficult election for him.” Nivison believes school officials didn’t treat Cardin fairly when allegations of misconduct against him surfaced in May of 2009. Also she believes the efforts of a state prosecutor to dismiss concerns raised about a possible conflict of interest involving a witness against Cardin were not in the public’s interest.
Nivison questions why Tolland County State’s Attorney Matthew C. Gedansky’s office handled the case against Cardin when it was Gedansky’s wife, Kerri Gedansky, a language arts teacher who worked alongside Cardin at Tolland Middle School, who first reported students’ concerns about Cardin’s conduct in the classroom to school administrators.
Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Leaming who handled case against Cardin bridled at the suggestion that Matthew Gedansky in any way influenced her decisions in the case against Cardin. “Matt did not have any involvement in the case,” Leaming said recently.
While Matthew Gedansky may not have had any involvement just the fact that his office was handling the case was enough for Cardin’s lawyer, Attorney Stephen McEleney, to raise the fairness issue as part of his defense of Cardin.
The importance of prosecutors’ avoiding conflicts of interest or even the appearance is included in the National District Attorneys Association’s National Prosecution Standards. “A prosecutor should not hold and interest or engage in activities, financial or otherwise, that conflict, have a significant potential to conflict, or are likely to create a reasonable appearance of conflict with the duties and responsibilities of the prosecutor’s office.”
The only problem with the standard is how one defines the word “reasonable.”
Leaming and Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane said Kerri Gedansky’s involvement doesn’t rise to the level where it would be reasonable to disqualify the entire Tolland County prosecutor’s office from the case. Kane, in a telephone interview Juy 1, said individual prosecutors at the state and federal level routinely disqualify themselves from handling cases that involve perceived conflicts of interest but that doesn’t mean the other prosecutors in the office should also be disqualified.
Kane said Matthew Gedansky disqualified himself from the case but “it didn’t call for the disqualification of the entire office.”
Kane said criminal cases are traditionally handled in the judicial district where the offense occurs. Transferring a case to another jurisdiction, Kane said, is the exception rather than the rule in Connecticut.
“We would be transferring our cases all over the place,” Kane said if prosecutors caved on every defense attorney’s transfer request.
Leaming initially argued against McEleney's efforts to move the case to another jurisdiction but relented after it became evident that he wouldn’t let the issue go.
“We spent several weeks litigating that issue,” Leaming said of McEleney’s claim of prosecutorial impropriety over her handling of the case against Cardin. McEleney “never wanted to deal with the issues (of the case)," Leaming said. “He wanted it moved,” Leaming said.
The case was transferred to Superior Court in Manchester where prosecutors are under the Hartford County State’s Attorney’s Office, not Tolland County. Assistant State’s Attorney Adam Scott who took over the case said it had been transferred over a conflict of interest claim. “It did involve Matt’s wife,” Scott said, adding that he “didn’t get into the conflict.”
It was Scott who eventually agreed not to prosecute the risk of injury charge, a felony punishable upon conviction in Connecticut of up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000 or both. Scott also declined to prosecute a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. If Cardin doesn’t violate any laws during a 13-month period that began March 2 when Scott agreed not to prosecutor the charges in exchange for Cardin’s giving up his teaching license, the charges against him will be erased.
Scott said he chose to nolle the charges after discussing the case with the female student on whose statements about an alleged classroom incident said to have occurred in the fall of 2009 both charges were based and with her family. It became a question of “whether they wanted to put her through the trial” because “…That case was going to draw a lot of media attention.”
Scott said the affidavit in the warrant was “is misleading” in that it includes witness statements about other alleged incidents of inappropriate behavior - including a claim by another teacher that Cardin had sexually harassed her in an e-mail for which he later apologized - that are not directly related to the purported incident on which the charge was based.
“There was truly only one victim,” Scott said, a conclusion he drew after reviewing the evidence. Since there were no other witnesses other than the purported victim to the crime alleged, if the victim was not going to testify prosecuting the case would have been difficult. The victim, a female identified in the arrest affidavit as “Juvenile #9” who was in Cardin’s seventh-grade social studies class in 2009.
Juvenile #9 told investigators that “on multiple occasions throughout the school year” she “would notice that" Cardin had an erection and would stand next to her desk, sometimes "directly next to my arm, it would be touching my arm but it would be right next to it on the desk.” The girl said none of the other girls in the class “ever mentioned seeing Mr. Cardin with an erection…”
Neither Juvenile #9 nor her mother - who was purportedly told about it by her daughter - mentioned the incident to school officials or the police until investigators began looking into allegations that Cardin had improperly touched female students in his class. Only then did investigators hear about the alleged incident which Juvenile #9 mentioned during the course of the investigation when investigators were checking out another female student’s claim that Cardin had removed on an I-Pod from Juvenile #9 hip pocket.
In her statement, Juvenile #9 said “I told my mom and she said she thought it was gross but … she just told me to stay away from him as best I could.”
The evidence on which the felony charge against Cardin was based comprised the statements of Juvenile #9.
The criminal case against Cardin was coming down to credibility and who jurors would believe. “You have to look at the credibility of the one witness,” Scott said. “It would appear she could have been the only one to see this.”
In the American legal system, it is the government that must prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that a defendant is guilty of an alleged crime, not that a defendant must prove he is innocent.
“I believe that if these charges were something that would stand up in court,” McEleney said, “Adam Scott would not throw them out.”
Scott didn’t technically through them out, but reached an agreement under which the charges could be dismissed (erased) in 13 months provided certain conditions are met.
Since the case could technically be reopened within the 13-month period McEleney, Leaming, Scott and Kane didn’t want to discuss the specific evidence in the case beyond what was contained in the affidavit, which is a public record.
Kane said that the agreement reached between McEleney and Leaming to transfer the case was a “reasonable compromise under the circumstances.”
McEleney, however, still takes issue with the information that went into the affidavit that led to a judge’s signing the warrant that charges Cardin with a felony.
The affidavit includes allegations that Cardin favors female over males, once hit a male student on the head in class to wake the student up, touched a girl’s arm as she made a muscle, sent “I love you" and sexually graphic e-mails to another female teacher after a party at his house that she attended, and a female student’s claim that Cardin is “‘creepy’ and makes her feel uncomfortable.”
These claims and assertions about Cardin are presented to the court as an offer of proof that Cardin’s typical pattern of behavior increases the likelihood that he committed the alleged crimes. McEleney, however, sees them as unsubstantiated claims that do little more than at attempt at “character assassination” of his client.
“What possible relevance do those have to the criminal charges?” McEleney said. “That is an attempt to besmirch Mr. Cardin in an arrest warrant.”
Cardin believes his rights were swept away by “a bit of mass hysteria” over rumors and allegations of child abuse involving a male teacher and “seventh grade adolescents.”
The series of events that ended Cardin’s career as a teacher began on May 18, 2010 when two female students told Kerri Gedansky that they believed Cardin had touched one of them improperly on the upper thigh while trying to retrieve her cell phone. As a mandatory reporter of suspected child abuse, Gedansky e-mailed the information that day to the school principal then met with him the following day, May 19 and Walter Willett started interviewing girls in Cardin’s class on May 20. Willett interviewed 47 students and obtained written statements from seven. The next day, May 21, Willett and Superintendent of Schools William Guzman met with Cardin to inform him he was being suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation that grew to include the state Department of Children and Families, state police and the Tolland County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Cardin compared the investigation to a storm and his being adrift in it “without a life raft.”
While the legal charges against Cardin in Superior Court, barring any unforeseen developments, have been resolved in a plea deal that requires he surrender his teaching license, questions about Cardin linger in the court of public opinion where he, not the state, must prove accusations were false.
“He has never shied away from confronting the accusations,” Nivison said. “He knows there will be those questions.”
Nivison said that even as the accusations against him grabbed media and public attention, he continued his work on the planning and zoning commission. Cardin also opened a new salvage business, Capitol Salvage, over the winter.
“His chairmanship on the planning and zoning commission has been stellar,” Nivison said. “His vision and foresight for the town of Tolland, you cannot compare it.”
If Cardin chose to step out of public life based on the unproven claims made against him," Nivison said, “…it would have been unfortunate for the entire town.”