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.
By finally agreeing to stop the MacDougall money train, Murray may hope to put the mess behind her. But, as sources and documents show, she still has a lot to explain about why this happened in the first place.
“If your average taxpayer knew that you can take $11 million, give it to a couple of friends, with no oversight or supervision, and get away with it, they would go crazy,” says one individual who was directly involved in the bidding process for the state grant. “But that’s what happened.”
Was the fix in?
In late 2003, Murray slipped a $2 million expenditure for marketing international tourism into an economic-stimulus package. The function had previously been handled by state agencies, primarily the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (MOTT).
But instead of simply giving the $2 million to MOTT to increase international tourism, or authorizing that office to award the contract, Murray’s legislation privatized the function and assigned a tiny, obscure, quasi-public office to select an outside vendor, through a competitive-bid process, to receive the funds. That office, the Massachusetts International Trade Council, had no tourism experience, and had never been responsible for such a large contract, but agreed to handle it, according to those who were there at the time, because the process included an “administrative fee” that would allow the office to stay open, in spite of its recent loss of state funding.
The Trade Council, however, was never really intended to choose the vendor. Instead, in the same stimulus bill, Murray created a 17-member “advisory board” to assist the Trade Council — which Murray believed would select the vendor, as documents and correspondence from the process show. Murray placed herself on that advisory board, along with Bosley, who had become co-chair of the Economic Development committee; the two of them also stacked the advisory board with tourism-industry friends — from her base on the Cape and Bosley’s base in the Berkshires.