That's a bright line that lawmakers know not to cross. But helping people get government jobs has long been a common practice— seen as a normal part of constituent services by many, despite the occasional outrage from Howie Carr and others.

Says one veteran Bay State political adviser: "People are nervous, because this is about the way business was done for years."

It's likely that, once the US attorney brings its case public, it will draw similar lines between ordinary patronage and the activities being alleged. But right now, nobody knows for sure — so they don't know which side of that line they're on.

Furthermore, the distinctions may concern far more than patronage, which is really just one part of the political deal-making, back-scratching, and going-along-to-get-along that are the longstanding legacy of machine politics.

Anyone who has spent time around Massachusetts politics has heard stories: an agency that always got funded because someone there supplied Red Sox and Celtics tickets for key lawmakers; or the incompetent employees that a new department head was instructed not to fire. It's always been hard to say which of these stories are true and which are not — but the people who might now be trading testimony with the feds would know, and might even have evidence to prove it.

And this is not the only investigation in which machine politics are under new suspicion.

There is the case of former Chelsea Housing Authority executive director Michael McLaughlin, which has already badly tainted Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray by association. The most recent news is that state auditors under Joe DeNucci knew that McLaughlin was concealing his true salary from state officials; this comes after new auditor Suzanne Bump cleaned out a slew of DeNucci's alleged patronage hires.

There are also rumors of wider nets being cast by the federal authorities and state agencies investigating John Barranco, a politically connected East Bostonian alleged to have funneled away millions of dollars of state money intended for special-needs education.

Beacon Hill pols are suddenly realizing that their connections to political-machine figures like these — connections that many of them have long considered an inevitable part of politics — might be toxic.


BLOOD IN THE WATER

Whatever reckoning is coming to Beacon Hill may involve sins of the past more than the present; machine politics have not died, but they are not what they once were. The pols sweating heavily now are mostly older, longtime incumbents or former officials. "You want to know whether people are nervous or not?" asks the political adviser. "Check whether they are over 50."

Trouble also seems to be heading more for pols outside the immediate Boston area, which some say reflects how power still plays out in smaller pockets of the commonwealth— where a state legislator can be a much bigger fish in their small pond. To put it simply, Bostonians have many places to turn for political favors, but in a small town your options are limited if you don't cozy up to your local connection to state government.

Regardless, there is increasing agreement that this case is likely to have significant political repercussions in state politics— for guilty and innocent, young and old, insider and outsider.

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