She who controls the purse

Terry Murray gave away $11 million of state money. Will anyone call her on it?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  February 9, 2007

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The rumor mill has been buzzing with speculation that Massachusetts senate president Robert Travaglini might leave the legislature to take a position with the Massachusetts Hospital Association or the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. This comes after rampant speculation last fall of Trav’s imminent departure.

True or not, the rumor has put a spotlight on one of Beacon Hill’s most powerful — and most feared — legislators: Senator Therese Murray of Plymouth, chair of the senate Ways and Means Committee, who many senators and staff believe has the support to succeed Travaglini.

That’s if a brewing scandal doesn’t explode in her face. According to some state employees, Murray appears to have personally directed $11 million of taxpayer money to a man who had been caught bilking the state before.

That contractor, William MacDougall, was supposed to be boosting international tourism to Massachusetts, a task at which he seems to have failed, according to Commerce Department data that shows a steady loss in the state’s international-tourist market share — and a surprising drop last year — since he received funding.

What MacDougall actually did is a mystery, because, according to state employees who oversaw his contract, he refuses to fully account for how he has spent the $6 million he received during the past two fiscal years. Now, MacDougall appears to have pushed the state beyond the limits of its patience. After weeks of closed-door meetings between Patrick administration officials and legislators, the state made the extraordinary decision to rescind the money already allotted to MacDougall in the current budget — $5 million that officials had been withholding because MacDougall refused to adequately account for his spending — and leave him out of the next fiscal year’s budget all together.

Still, the greater mystery to many in the tourism industry is why MacDougall received the budget earmarks in the first place, and why every attempt by the Romney administration to stop the waste was thwarted.

The answer, insiders insist, lies with First Berkshire representative Democrat Daniel Bosley and, more importantly, with Therese Murray. As a top Travaglini lieutenant who plays bad cop to his good cop, Murray controls the state budget as Ways and Means chair — and uses the power of the purse to reward and punish as she pleases, say Beacon Hill observers.

“The Romney people thought this kind of thing only happened in books like Black Mass, not in real life,” says one political insider — who, like many others, asked not to be named for fear of revenge from Murray.

The power of the purse has thus far insulated Murray from criticism, say her detractors, because Murray controls the budgets of the offices that should be investigating her actions. Meanwhile, the state auditor’s office has recently been handed reams of documents about the MacDougall fiasco, but a spokesperson there claims it is beyond that agency’s scope to investigate. (Others argue that because the money was a direct earmark, the office could perform a vendor audit of MacDougall.) And while the state Inspector General’s office received complaints about MacDougall more than a year ago, no inquiry has yet been made. Arguments that the MacDougall arrangement violates the “Pacheco Law” against privatizing a state function have fallen on deaf ears at senator Marc Pacheco’s own Post Audit and Oversight Committee.

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