State employee investigated for selling term papers

The Massachusetts Appeals Court has placed a senior staff attorney on paid administrative leave after CommonWealth reported that the attorney was running a side business writing term papers for students in apparent violation of state law. (See “Term Paper Trafficking,” CW, Fall ’09.)

Alex McNeil, court administrator for the appeals court, said staff attorney Damian Bonazzoli was placed on leave while an investigation is conducted.

“The integrity of our courts is of paramount importance, and all of those who work in the justice system must be held to the highest standards,” said Chief Justice Philip Rapozza in a statement.

A Massachusetts criminal law passed in 1972 bars the sale of term papers if those involved know or have reason to know that the material will be submitted for academic credit and represented as original work.

The Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers states in part that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as lawyer” as well as to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”

The Bonazzoli episode was part of a CommonWealth sting operation that shined a light on the shadowy world of term-paper trafficking. Bonazzoli was one of 62 term-paper writers advertising on Boston’s Craigslist who responded to an email inquiry sent out by a CommonWealth reporter, posing as a student, asking to have a 20-page, double-spaced term paper written on the subject of physician-assisted suicide. The responders quoted prices ranging from $90 to $1,200. The average price was $370, or $18.50 a page.

Bonazzoli promised a “quality grade” if he was hired to write the 20-page paper. “I’m here to help you ace your term paper,” one of his Craigslist ads proclaimed. Another ad bragged, “I have authored over 200 judicial opinions and memoranda.”

As part of his pitch, Bonazzoli sent along, unsolicited, his resume, which revealed that he was employed as a senior staff attorney for the appeals court — a job that pays him $94,000 a year — and a summa cum laude graduate of Boston College Law School. Bonazzoli wanted $300 to write the paper on physician-assisted suicide.

“My academic history, coupled with my work experience, gives me an edge not many writers have,” Bonazzoli said in an email exchange about the 20-page assignment. He also claimed that turning in a paper that he had written would not be illegal. “I am aware of no state or federal statute that prohibits such a practice. This is not the equivalent of, say, lying on a federal employment or tax form,” he said. “Could your school take disciplinary action? Of course. But that’s quite different from criminal prosecution.”

In a follow-up telephone interview in which the reporter identified himself, Bonazzoli said that he was unaware of the Massachusetts law on term papers. As to the ethics of what he was doing, Bonazzoli said, “It is the responsibility of students to adhere to the ethics codes that their schools set for them.” He then added, “I don’t see any ethical conundrum from my perspective.”

A handful of other individuals and businesses were contacted about writing admissions essays, which would not be a violation of state law. Dr. Rivka Colen, a neuroradiology fellow practicing at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, offered to write admissions essays for medical school. Her fee for four essays was $800. Colen has since left Beth Israel Deaconess for Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Dr. Jonathan Kruskal, chairman of the department of radiology at Beth Israel and professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, said there is no policy in place at the hospital precluding Colen from doing what she did, but that he will be discussing the issue internally as well as with his counterparts at other hospitals.

“Personally, I cannot and do not support such activities being undertaken in my department, but fear that many people are doing this as the demand increases,” Kruskal said. “This activity certainly raises several moral and ethical questions?and is not the type of activity that I want any member of my department participating in.”

Meet the Author
Colman M. Herman is a freelance writer living in Dorchester. Illustration by Phil Disley.