FROM FITZ TO FLYNN
Established in 1908, FinComm was originally a political insurance scheme orchestrated by the incorrigible John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, the grandfather of John F. Kennedy and two-term mayor of Boston. Back then, politics around here were largely framed around Brahmin-versus-Irish rivalries. So when he was accused of engaging in payroll graft, Fitzgerald figured he could ward off state authorities by tapping respected Brahmins to vet the allegations. His plan backfired severely, though, and Fitzgerald lost re-election after the commission revealed patronage in his administration.
With Fitzgerald mauled by his own watchdog — and with a Republican in City Hall — FinComm convinced state legislators to make the commission permanent, and to install other measures that could help secure a Brahmin grip over immigrant Boston. To that end, the city charter of 1909 (which remains in effect today) placed FinComm appointments under gubernatorial control, and stripped much of the power that Irish pols and communities had spent years establishing. The eight-person Board of Aldermen, where Rascal King James Michael Curley cut his teeth, was abolished. As was the 75-man Common Council, which was replaced by a much less representative nine-man City Council.
The men in the Massachusetts State House in the early 1900s "were engaged in a partially successful effort to regulate the government of the city of Boston on the grounds that City Hall was becoming a cesspool of corruption," according to a 1966 piece in the policy journal The Public Interest. "The chief instrument of state supervision over the suspect affairs of the city was to be the Boston Finance Commission, appointed by the governor to investigate any and all aspects of municipal affairs in the capital."
Nobody attracted more FinComm ire than Curley, who warred with the commission throughout his four terms as mayor. In 1915, one year after his first mayoral victory, FinComm crucified Curley for constructing his infamous 21-room Jamaicaway mansion. In addition to marble fireplaces and ornate woodworkings that developers suspiciously donated at no cost, the mayor neglected to account for the $10,000 he used to buy the property. In a testimony before FinComm, Curley concocted an elaborate lie involving imaginary brokers and bogus trust accounts.
FinComm would chap Curley's ass into the early 1930s, when board members proved that the mayor had pocketed tens of thousands of dollars from city settlements on damage claims. To protect himself, he had thugs loot the FinComm office and steal the related files. But Curley got his ultimate revenge after being elected governor of Massachusetts in 1934. To keep FinComm from examining crimes that he committed during his third term at City Hall — offenses that would eventually land him behind bars — Curley forced the resignations of all board members, and replaced them with political puppets of his choosing.
By the 1960s, FinComm had recovered its independence and was back to scrutinizing city finances. In 1968, the commission humiliated the sheriff of Suffolk County for his department's irresponsible financial management. In the '70s, it ousted several no-show administrative assistants. And in 1982, FinComm called out Mayor Kevin White for spending nearly $100,000 in city money on lawyers to defend himself against corruption charges.
FinComm's strong legacy continued through the '80s and '90s, with the commission delivering bombshell reports on everything from waste in the police and fire departments, to how much capital Boston lost from poor management of the city's golf courses. Squeaky-clean mayor Ray Flynn was not immune; in 1992 the Republican FinComm chairman John de Jong criticized him for using city funds to stump around the country for Bill Clinton.
As for Mayor Tom Menino — some observers say he's got the commission right where he wants them, out of sight and pathetically underfunded.