UNDERCOVER NINJA

In 2007, Cahill's FinComm duties took him to Mount Hope Cemetery in Mattapan. Dressed all in black, he hid behind trees and gravestones, ninja-style, to spy on a city employee who was stealing gas intended for work vehicles. The FinComm stakeout was successful; after also catching workers — on tape — taking three-hour liquid lunches, Cahill and then-FinComm executive director Jeff Conley triggered the firing of superintendent of cemeteries Donald J. Griffis.

"That was a lot of fun," says Cahill. "I remember [Conley] said to me, 'If they catch us, at least they'll already have a place to bury us.' "

It wasn't the first time that FinComm addressed problems during the Menino administration. In 2004 the commission exposed Inspectional Services Department head Kevin Joyce for allegedly firing an employee who refused to rig contracts. Menino championed Joyce's innocence, claiming the department head was "vilified" by the media. The commission threw another haymaker that same year when, during preparation for the Democratic National Convention, FinComm shamed the police department for renting nearly $200,000 worth of barriers despite the city's adequate fencing resources.

Hizzoner maintains that he has a positive relationship — or at least a working relationship — with FinComm. A Menino spokesperson was happy to point out that Boston funds the commission at nearly eight times the $25,000 mandated back in 1909 (of course they'd have to fund it at closer to 20 times that to account for inflation). At the same time, Paul Minihane, a Republican who chairs the five-member board, says FinComm currently has more of an "open dialogue" with City Hall than in the past.

Still, the city keeps its watchdog on a short leash. Two weeks ago, Boston's head of property management knocked on FinComm's door, and told them they'd be moving to a windowless basement on Hawkins Street. Cahill refused the offer. He doesn't mind leaving North Street; for years FinComm has recommended selling the valuable property, located just steps from the Rose Kennedy Greenway. But Cahill doesn't relish the thought of working in a subterranean bunker, and has suspicions about how the deal is being managed.

Fearing a potential loss of millions, the commission put the brakes on the North Street sale, ordering the city to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP). Due out this week, the RFP will address the real value of the parcel, and will help determine how to move forward prudently.

"Without an RFP, there's really no telling how much the property is worth," says Cahill. "With things like this I find that 50 percent of the time it's an error, and 50 percent of the time it's someone trying to pull one over on the city. . . . The mayor can't possibly know about everything that's going on — he's like someone who oversees a very big corporation, and has a bunch of managers underneath him. So if I find something that doesn't look right, I give him a heads-up in writing and then we talk about it."

Despite the mayor's civilized rapport with the commission, Cahill is constantly enmeshed in dozens of concurrent struggles with the administration. So far this year, FinComm has reviewed 518 contracts, worth more than $200 million altogether. Of those, the commission rejected 11 — all for appropriations to the school department, which Cahill says has been a constant source of aggravation for FinComm. For example: the comission recently attempted to stop a $7.5 million BPS Apple laptop contract, which Cahill alleges was not properly put up for bidding (a department spokesperson denies the charge). Because of the way BPS purchased the machines — through a state supplier — FinComm was not required to green-light the deal. But if resources allowed, Cahill says he'd be able to pursue the matter further.

"What worries me the most is that we don't have time to really look into the whole thing as much as we should," says Cahill. "I'd love to know things like who is getting these computers, how much money is going into servicing them, and what kind of warranties they'll have. We don't have the time to go into that in depth. I could do it, but everything else would have to stop." Even more frustrating, he adds, is the reaction to past attempts to improve his operation by securing grant money. "I won't name names," says Cahill, "but I got calls from important people who are high up saying that other important people were not happy with what I was doing."

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