In a WAMC News exclusive, a Pittsfield, Massachusetts city councilor is opening up about her time working for Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington – and what led to her exit.
When WAMC first reported on Helen Moon’s departure from Harrington’s office in July 2020, the DA said she was proud of the Ward 1 city councilor’s contributions.
“Our community should be tremendously grateful to her for that work," said Harrington. "And I really am looking forward to seeing what Councilor Moon accomplishes as she continues to serve on the city council."
At the time, Moon didn’t offer any specifics as to why she left the office. Harrington characterized it as a personnel issue.
Now, Moon is telling her story for the first time.
She says she was one of the first people to call on Harrington to run for office in 2018, when then-District Attorney David Capeless abruptly stepped down, positioning longtime deputy Paul Caccaviello to run to succeed him.
“I thought that Andrea had a reform platform," Moon told WAMC. "You know, I think that a lot of times, we see the same thing happen over and over again in the criminal justice system. And so having somebody who is not entrenched in that system I thought was the direction that the District Attorney's Office needed to go in terms of changing some of the ingrained systems that were already in place.”
Harrington framed herself as a progressive outsider, promoting diversion programs, drug courts, transparency and community-oriented law enforcement as a tonic to modernize the office.
“How do we get people, juveniles, people with mental illnesses, people with substance use disorders?" asked Moon. "How do we get them connected to services that can help address underlying causes of crime instead of criminalizing what is often due to poverty and lack of resources? So those are kind of the big things that I saw and heard from Andrew Harrington. And the same thing with, I have a, I think, a passion for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and she was somebody who took a strong stance on supporting victims.”
It was a hard-fought race, and Moon worked to organize events and fundraisers while serving as what she described as a “behind the scenes campaign manager.”
“I viewed Andrea as a mentor," the city councilor said. "And she supported me in my 2017 run for city council. And I was I was close to her. I definitely spent a lot of time with Andrea. Once the campaign started, you know, I was working full time, but probably giving, like 30 or more hours a week to the campaign, and it was a lot of one on one time with Andrea as well. So, you know, by that point, I would say that – and then into my tenure in the office – I feel like she became somebody that I considered family. It was more than just mentorship and the candidate. She was my friend, and I considered her my family.”
After the campaign, Moon says Harrington convinced her to leave her lucrative nursing job to join the office as Director of Special Projects.
“Andrea said, you know, you are working with patients one on one and you are improving the lives of people on a one to one basis, but don't you want to be a part of a system that could improve systems that improve a community of lives instead of just one person at a time,” she explained.
But Moon says she found Harrington the DA was different from Harrington the candidate – more interested in perpetuating a story about fulfilled campaign promises than actual institutional change.
“The office runs like a campaign," said Moon. "It is a, it is a culture of making sure that Andrea gets reelected in 2022. That is what I felt like was my job. And that is what I think is the Public Information Officer’s job, is to create a narrative that supports the progressive reforms of the district attorney so that she gets reelected in 2022.”
As an example, Moon pointed to the DA’s oft-touted elimination of cash bail in 2019.
“Yes, that was a good shift, because cash bail is criminalizing poverty," she said. "Only people who cannot afford bail end up staying imprisoned pretrial. What she doesn't talk about is the dramatic increase in dangerousness hearings that the office is now utilizing to keep people in prison incarcerated pretrial. That number has increased exponentially. And the racial disparity in that number is also disproportionately affecting people of color. She put out an email blast recently about, like, ending cash bail. And she pointed to these statistics prior to her administration. But where are the statistics during her administration? Because those numbers still show that we are disproportionately still incarcerating people of color.”
Moon says she was concerned about Harrington’s commitment to the transparency and accountability she had campaigned on. She says the DA routinely blocked critics on social media, and early on even fired an entire department at her office because of its support for Caccaviello in the campaign.
“She let those people go because they did not support her," said Moon. "They explicitly had supported her opponent, despite the fact that some of these folks had invested their life into public service, and despite the fact that, you know, some of these folks were close to retirement, and some of them were fantastic at the work that they did.”
Moon remembers a tense atmosphere in the Harrington administration’s early days.
“There was one staff meeting, an all-staff meeting where she started the meeting by saying, Don't worry, nobody's getting fired in this meeting," she told WAMC. "Like, that was the culture for the first six months to eight months in that administration.”
Everything came to a head for Moon in the days after the police killing of George Floyd last May.
“I sent a text to Andrea and said, I, personally, in my personal city council life, felt compelled to ask for more accountability and transparency in our Pittsfield Police Department's budget," she said. "I realized after George Floyd that I really did not understand the extent to which the police department, how they were using their money. And that information was not readily available, and I wanted to understand better what were we spending $11 million on in the city of Pittsfield for our police. And so I texted Andrea, and I said, I'm going to lean in on the police department budget. And she responded that Rich might be concerned about that.”
Rich Dohoney is Pittsfield’s former city solicitor who joined Harrington’s administration as deputy district attorney.
“And I responded back, like, I honestly did not tell you this as my employer," Moon continued. "I told you this as my friend, and somebody who works closely with law enforcement that this was something that I'm going to be doing, but I'm not asking your permission in this.”
Moon says her decision to dig into the Pittsfield Police Department budget precipitated her departure from Harrington’s office.
“June 5, I believe, she called me or she texted and asked if she could call me," she said. "And she called me and said, I think it's time for you to find a new job. And I asked her why. And she said, I can be the only law enforcement voice in the office.”
It came as a shock.
“I was very surprised, initially, and I feel like I went through like, the stages of grief, kind of like, disbelief that it had happened,” she said.
At that point, Moon says she entered a sort of twilight zone at the DA’s office with around a month passing before she was officially fired. During that time, she says she was emboldened to push Harrington more directly on issues within the office.
“I brought up instances of microaggressions, and brought up an instance of one of our senior management people talking about how they like to see ladies in short skirts in court during lunch, like, just completely inappropriate culture, office culture," said Moon. "And I asked what she was going to do about it, I asked what she was going to do about racial justice. And she started to, I would say, decrease my workload.”
Finally, Moon and Harrington scheduled a meeting to discuss the terms of her departure from the office.
“I went into that meeting, and she offered me, I think it's the equivalent of like $4,200 or $4,300, to sign a nondisclosure agreement," Moon told WAMC. "And I said no, you don't get to buy my silence for this amount of money. This is really inappropriate. And then she said, Well, you can consider yourself fired, effective immediately. And that was it.”
Moon says she hasn’t spoken with her former mentor since that conversation. She says she has become one of the people the DA has blocked on social media.
“It’s important for it to be out there," Moon said. "I think it's important for people to know who their district attorney is. When she speaks about reforming the criminal justice system and when she speaks about racial justice, is she being held accountable to what she's saying? Are those values that she says she has being implemented in her own office? And does the culture support people of color in that office? Because I definitely did not feel supported. And I would say that other people of color also do not feel supported in that office. I think it's about expecting and getting more from people who are elected and ensuring that what they promise is followed through on and so that is what I'm hoping from this process.”
She explained why it took months for her to put her experience into a public account.
“As a city councilor, and as an elected person, I am incredibly fearful of what the fallout is going to be," Moon told WAMC. "You know, I'm incredibly fearful of what kind of blowback I'm going to experience because I came forward with my truth and my experience and her administration. And isn't that so sad that we operate in this mentality of fear and retribution, and where people who have – it just makes me think about all the victims out there who have experienced trauma in their lives and how they can't come forward because of the culture in which we allow this unaccountability to rot. I feel very compelled this year and last year, especially with COVID and everything that's happening, that we can't just sit back and let it happen. And so this is my attempt at standing up against what should be a supportive system that isn’t.”
Asked for comment on this story by WAMC, the DA’s office offered a statement in striking contrast to Harrington’s praise of Moon when she left the office last summer:
“The mission of the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office is to work collaboratively with our partners to create a safer and more just community by implementing meaningful justice reforms, enhancing safeguards for our county’s most vulnerable people, and building community support and understanding of the criminal justice reform movement. We do this work as a team.
Councilor Moon never embraced the team approach, alienated herself from her colleagues, publicly undermined our work, and we came to question her honesty, including her trustworthiness with confidential information. The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office senior leadership believes that the separation of employment is in the best interest of our team and our community.”
The Berkshire District Attorney's Office provided WAMC with an updated statement on March 11th, 2021:
“Ms. Moon’s statement that the district attorney offered her money in exchange for her signing of a non-disparagement agreement is a lie.
On July 8th, The district attorney requested a meeting with Ms. Moon. Ms. Moon responded to that request via email on July 13th with a demand for multiple terms for separation including a cash payment and a ‘mutual non-disparagement' agreement. Ms. Moon pointedly threatened to go to the media should the district attorney fail to settle Ms. Moon’s claims according to her terms.
The district attorney refused to engage in any discussion of Ms. Moon’s demands. Rather, the district attorney and the first assistant proposed that Ms. Moon remain employed for one month in order to ensure a smooth transition of the ongoing projects she was working on.
Ms. Moon demanded a $150,000 payment. The district attorney then ended the meeting immediately and terminated Ms. Moon’s employment that day.
The district attorney directed Ms. Moon’s complaints through appropriate processes for resolution as required by state law and office policy. Employees who have suffered legitimate, legally actionable harms in the workplace have legal avenues to address those harms.”