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Violating the public trust?

A five-year look at Massachusetts public servants charged with crimes and ethics violations

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 Updated:

The Massachusetts State House seen after dark in Boston.

Wikimedia Commons

In the past five years, Massachusetts residents have been forced to witness an embarrassing parade of fallen public servants caught up in corrupt acts, handcuffed and led away. Their names still prompt a wince: Finneran, DiMasi, Wilkerson, Turner, Marzilli and more. The scandals’ cost to the public purse is untold; the cost to public confidence in government leadership incalculable.

Yet the overwhelming majority of public servants embroiled in criminal or ethical scandals since 2007 are people most in Massachusetts have never heard of. They draw their paychecks far from power centers like Beacon Hill or city halls, but in small town schools and libraries, municipal police and fire stations, in local housing projects, on rural postal routes, in state prisons, county jails and courthouses dotting the Bay State. From a former Springfield school teacher accused of insurance fraud to a Lawrence police officer charged with rape to a Dighton town official sanctioned for hiring his relatives, hundreds of ordinary individuals paid to serve the public interest have been charged with or admitted to crimes and ethical misconduct in Massachusetts, according to a new analysis by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

The NECIR compilation of public servants accused of crimes or ethical misconduct was culled over the past several months from news reports, agency press releases, state and federal court records, Ethics Commission dispositions, government annual reports and interviews with municipal, state and federal officials.  

The first four months of 2012 alone have featured at least 19 public servants who have either admitted to criminal or unethical conduct or are facing new state or federal criminal charges, the NECIR analysis shows.  The group includes a Billerica man who was selling cocaine to substance abuse patients at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Bedford, where he worked, a West Bridgewater High School teacher and coach who portrayed himself online as a mom who would pimp out an 11-year-old daughter and a Shirley town administrator who admitted videotaping women in a town restroom.

“This is a much larger dataset than I would have expected. What’s going on here is that New England tends to enforce its laws,” said Craig Holman, a government ethics scholar with the citizens’ advocacy group Public Citizen in Washington D.C. Holman reviewed the data from Massachusetts and five other New England states for NECIR.  

As least 12 police employees in Springfield have been charged in the past five years, the highest amount from any one city or town, in criminal cases ranging from incest to larceny to drunk driving, the records show. 

Criminal charges or ethical violations have been lodged against at least 11 firefighters since 2007, including five in Hampden County prosecuted for arson and conspiracy.   

More than two dozen individuals were either elected officials or ran for public office before being sanctioned for ethical violations or charged with public corruption, the records show. Among them are seven state lawmakers as well as an assortment of city councilors, selectmen, sheriffs and three mayors.

At least 37 Massachusetts public servants have been prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts over the past five years, ranging from felony cases against two consecutive House speakers to a U.S. Port Security official accused of assisting an illegal immigrant, the records show.   

The federal prosecutor in Massachusetts far outpaced her counterparts in every other New England state with the number of criminal complaints brought against individuals on the public payroll, the NECIR analysis shows. 

Prosecuting public corruption is the top national priority for the F.B.I., said Christina Sterling, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston. Sterling said she could not confirm the number of cases the Massachusetts’ U.S. Attorney has prosecuted.

"It is policy that we rely solely on Department of Justice verified statistics, so we wouldn’t be able to respond to any questions that utilize statistics from any other source," Sterling said in an email. 

Sterling’s email said unlike the other New England states, the federal prosecutor’s office in Massachusetts is considered a special U.S. Department of Justice “extra-large district” with 100 attorneys or more.  

Sterling released a statement from Ortiz noting that while the vast majority of public servants are honest, public corruption has stained many corners of government in Massachusetts.  

“In our work to root out corruption and safeguard public resources, we follow the facts where they lead. And as we have seen, the leads have taken us to legislatures, courts, city halls, law enforcement departments, school and zoning boards, and government agencies of all kinds.” the statement said.

Dick Simpson, a government corruption expert at the University of Illinois, said places with dominant one-party government, such as heavily Democratic Massachusetts, tend to have more problematic rates of violations of the public trust.   

“Places of high corruption — such as Boston, Chicago or New Jersey — were all places that practiced machine politics,” said Simpson, author of a recent Chicago corruption report.

But George Brown, a former chair of the state Ethics Commission, said the high number of cases doesn’t necessarily reflect that Massachusetts has more dishonest public servants than other New England states.

“I think it is a matter of the underlying practice or culture; this U.S. Attorney’s office has always had a practice of being aggressive when it comes to political corruption,” said Brown, a professor at Boston College Law School.  

The analysis comes as Massachusetts earned a “C” grade in a national investigation released last month assessing each state’s risk for corruption. Massachusetts earned high scores for the transparency of its political financing and lobbying systems but got an “F” grade for the accessibility of public records, the investigation concluded. The state review was conducted by NECIR in collaboration with The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

Given that many of the more current charges against public employees are still pending or are being appealed, it is not possible to accurately determine conviction rates from the data nor is it possible to calculate the financial cost to taxpayers. 

Sterling said because there is no central billing system for costs associated with each case, it is not possible to provide an accounting of the amount of public funds spent to investigate and prosecute public servants in Massachusetts.  

A spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, who declined requests for an interview on her record prosecuting public servants, agreed. 

“We don’t bill taxpayers by the hour like a private firm, so we don’t track cost per case that way,” Brad Puffer said in a statement. 

Coakley has come under criticism recently for indicting former state Treasurer Timothy Cahill for allegedly using public funds to advertise the successes of the Massachusetts state lottery, which he oversaw, while he ran for governor in 2010. Cahill has pleaded not guilty.

The AG has brought criminal charges against at least 34 public servants since 2007, the NECIR analysis shows. 

“Our office believes it is important to investigate and prosecute public employees or government officials who abuse the public trust or commit other criminal violations. Last year, we formed a public integrity division dedicated to cases involving public corruption and fraud, including the misuse of taxpayer funds. We will continue to pursue cases where the evidence warrants prosecution,” Coakley said in a statement.  

Over 100 claims of misconduct lodged against Massachusetts public servants in the past five years have come from the state Ethics Commission, which bolstered its ability to punish transgressors of state ethics laws in 2009, following the federal indictment of former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi that same year.

The Ethics Commission has cited politicians for failing to submit financial disclosure forms, fined the police chief in East Bridgewater for involving himself in disciplinary proceedings brought against his son, who was also on the force and fined a Boston City Councilor $2000 for trying to get his own parking tickets dismissed.

Some transgressors have failed to pay ethics fines, according to agency records obtained under a state public records law request. They include Nantucket Sheriff Richard M. Bretschneider, who has failed to pay a $1200 fine imposed in 2011 for ignoring the state's financial disclosure law, requiring him to submit asset information for 2010. Bretschneider filed his asset disclosure form 111 days following the expiration of the grace period in September, 2011, the records show. Bretschneider has also failed to respond to the commission's decision to fine him.

A message left at Bretschneider’s home on Nantucket was not returned. He was defeated for sheriff last year.  

Former Lawrence School Committee member Priscilla Baez has not yet paid $275 of a $2000 fine she agreed to in 2009 for violating the state's conflict of interest law. Baez admitted she had twice voted in 2008 as a school committee member to approve a higher-paying job being specially created for her brother by the then School Superintendent, Ethics Commission records show. 

A recording on the phone listing for Baez’s home in Lawrence said it was not accepting messages last week.  

Public sanctions are just a small fraction of the roughly 900 to 1100 complaints against public servants made to the Ethics Commission each year; hundreds of private letters are mailed annually to public employees who have failed to adhere to the state’s complex conflict of interest and financial disclosure laws, an agency spokesman said. 

The 2009 reforms have also caused an uptick in the number of requests for both legal advice as well as complaints to the commission. In the four years prior to the reform, the average number of complaints filed with the agency was 975, while in the four years since it has grown to 1,120, agency statistics show. 

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is a non-profit newsroom based at Boston University. NECIR interns contributing to this report were Chelsea Feinstein, James Robinson and John Wayne Ferguson.