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November 29, 2012

Teacher case gets special prosecutor

By Richard Whitby
The Daily Star

---- — Michael Breen of Middleburgh was appointed special prosecutor Wednesday in the case of a former Walton teacher accused of having sex with underage students.

The appointment came just a day before ex-teacher Stephanie Fletcher was scheduled to appear before Sidney Town Justice Steven Rose, but that appearance subsequently was postponed to Dec. 13.

Breen told the court he had another court appearance that conflicted with the Sidney hearing, a court official said.

Fletcher is charged with two counts of rape in the third degree, a charge filed in cases where a defendant older than 21 is accused of having sexual intercourse with someone younger than 17. She also is charged with one count of third-degree criminal sexual act and one count of endangering the welfare of a child.

The two boys with whom Fletcher is accused of having sex were 16 at the time of the alleged incidents, according to court documents obtained by The Daily Star.

In 2009, Breen represented Middleburgh high school teacher Colleen Benton as she sought to overturn an arbitrator’s decision in January of that year that she be dismissed for offering to perform a sexual act on an 11th-grade student two years earlier, according to an article in the Daily Gazette of Schenectady.

The arbitrator described Benton’s actions as “predatory behavior,” according to the article.

In petitioning the state Supreme Court for Benton’s reinstatement in February 2009, according to the article, Breen wrote that the arbitrator made the assumption that Benton’s alleged action would cause “long-lasting harm to the student.”

“On the contrary, anyone with knowledge of 17-year-old boys would assume that most would accept the offer with alacrity and those who, from fear or embarrassment, refused to offer would soon and for the rest of their lives regret not having taken advantage of it,” he was quoted as writing.

Breen was not available Wednesday afternoon to comment on the Benton case.

Earlier in the day, he said he had been told about his appointment to prosecute Fletcher but hadn’t been officially notified. As a result, he said, he could not comment on the case.

“I have no authority to act on anything,” he said.

A special prosecutor usually is named when a district attorney perceives a conflict of interest in pursuing a case, although it remained unclear why Delaware County District Attorney Richard Northrup asked for one.

He declined Wednesday to elaborate.

The interim superintendent of the Walton Central School District also declined to comment when asked whether the case had prompted district officials to examine how they evaluate teachers and procedures to head off such cases.

“It’s a police matter,” said George F. Mack, the interim schools chief.

Breen has been called into service as a special prosecutor in Delaware County at least three times in the past, the most recent in a case last year in which the Sidney Town Attorney Joseph Ermeti was charged with assault.

He also prosecuted Katherine Covell, who was indicted in 2009 on charges of second-degree vehicular manslaughter, driving while intoxicated and driving with a blood-alcohol content above .08 percent after a fatal crash Nov. 29, 2008, on Route 10 in Walton. Covell eventually pleaded guilty to the first charge and was sentenced to four months in jail and five years’ probation.

In the third case, he prosecuted a Franklin lawyer accused of filing a false petition in an adoption case. She eventually was barred from practicing law for four years.