Five years ago today, Therese Murray became president of the Massachusetts state senate -- and a productive and controversy-filled five years it's been.
The anniversary also means that it's been a little more than five years since the senate president has spoken to me, or communicated with me in any way.
That's because of an award-winning story I wrote a month earlier, exposing the story behind $11 million worth of direct earmarks, for tourism marketing, to a guy who had been forced to resign from state government after he was caught defrauding the state.
My article strongly suggested that Murray was able to orchestrate the whole thing because of the enormous power she wielded at the time as chair of the senate Ways & Means Committee -- and that, because of that same power of the purse, nobody was willing to do anything about the fiasco.
At the time, Murray publicly accused me of being a fabricator and liar. She was quoted saying that the entire story was made up (or, alternately, that there were only two correct facts in the entire story); she called on me to return an award I received for the story, after quipping that she didn't know they gave press awards for fiction.
Privately, she told many people that the story was planted by Mitt Romney spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom. I can state declaratively that this is untrue; some folks who know about my relationship with Fehrnstrom got a kick out of the accusation though.
I stand by the story completely, with the exception of the specification (in someone's quote) of trips to Italy -- a detail I retracted quickly. That is a minor detail of no significance to the overall story, all of which is accurately reported.
And, I would argue, subsequent events have demonstrated that I was correct about the overarching theme -- that her power, and particularly her control over the budget, prevented anyone from doing anything about it.
When the story hit -- and when Travaglini resigned soon after, setting up her election to president -- it stirred enough controversy that she had to do something about it, aside from publicly denouncing me as a liar. So, she asked the Inspector General's office to investigate. And yes, the Inspector General's office is budgeted through a line-item that Therese Murray largely controls.
The Inspector General then made what appeared to be a purely politically-motivated positive statement regarding the investigation, the day before the senate voted to make Murray president. I wrote about that here, and at the same time posted some of the documentation I had for the story.
The IG then took a year to issue its report, and when it did, the report read like an attempt to fact-check (selected portions) of my article, not an attempt to determine whether anything improper had been done regarding the tourism-marketing contract. Commonwealth Magazine wrote about the odd report, with the headline "Murray uses IG as ombudsman for Phoenix story." I wrote about the IG's failure to address the actual substance here.
Meanwhile, the state Auditor's office -- then under Joe DeNucci (whose oversight in that job has recently, shall we say, come under question), had already been handed the hot potato, as part of its scheduled audit of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (MOTT). MOTT had been stuck with administering the multi-million-dollar earmark, and could not get the recipient -- the guy previously forced to leave MOTT due to fraud -- to actually show where the money was going, or how it was being used. The Auditor's budget, by the way, is also controlled in large part by Murray,
I want to give you one example to help you understand how bad the legislature, and Murray in particular, might have looked had someone actually performed an audit. In its original proposal, the friend-of-Murray proposed $30,000 for building a web site. After being handed the contract, he promptly budgeted close to $400,000 for building the web site. Then, he claimed to have spent more than $850,000 on it.
MOTT requested some sort of, oh I don't know, evidence that all this taxpayer money had actually been spent on a web site. Maybe "a copy of the contract, scope of services, and budget for the entity that had developed the website." Here is the most detailed response they ever obtained:
We have had to rebuild the international website that was abandoned by MOTT, as well as repurchase a URL (usamass.com) which was released by MOTT. The site is now more relevant, will be launched in multiple languages, and will convey a stronger, clearer message to international visitors. Technology remains an integral part of our original proposal and marketing plan. It will continue to expand as consumers around the world turn to the internet.
DeNucci's office took even longer than the IG to issue its report, finally slipping it out on the last possible day it was statutarily obligated to, June 30, 2008. The report made clear that the Auditor did not actually attempt to audit the money that had gone out under the earmark -- such as that $850,000 for web site development -- and that the fault was with MOTT for failing to conduct an audit itself, including in-person visits to ensure that the money was really being used for its intended purposes.
In its response to the Audit, MOTT officials took exception, pointing out that a little office like itself has no expertise or personnel to do that sort of thing:
Nowhere in the Comptroller’s Guidance is there a requirement for on-site audits
on legislative earmarks. The Legislature has not provided DBT/MOTT any monies
for any additional staff or for audits.
Please know that the
Legislature has never required formal reports regarding the use of their
earmarked funds. Each earmark has its own legislative sponsor with limited
guidance on the use of the earmarked funds.
The Auditor responded by again insisting that agencies, not the Auditor, held that responsibility:
what MOTT asserts in its response, the guidance issued by OSC relative to the
administration of grants also applies to legislative earmarks. Although we
acknowledge that DBT/MOTT does not designate the recipients of these earmarks,
it still has the responsibility of ensuring that these funds are expended for
their intended purposes.
This was perhaps the only way for DeNucci to get out of the audit without exposing what a fiasco Murray had wrought. But as policy, it essentially says that any earmark recipient is free and clear to do whatever they want with the money.
It also doesn't appear to be the actual law. At least, current Auditor, Suzanne Bump, doesn't think so. I asked about this, and was told by her office spokesperson that "We do not believe that this office is or should be constrained from auditing money granted to a vendor, even if it comes from a legislative earmark."
One more point. The important implication I made was not only that Murray had the ability to punish those who were in a position to resist her at every step of the process, but that she had a strong reputation for being willing to hold and act upon a grudge.
As I mentioned above, she has not spoken to me in five years since this story ran -- a time during which I have written many things, positive negative and neutrl about her. (She also did not speak to me for that article. Nor did she speak to me, or communicate with anyone at the Phoenix about it after the article appeared. She never asked for any correction or retraction; never asked to run a letter in response.)
Perhaps this grudge will wear off now that it's been five years. I intend to contact her office later this week on an unrelated issue; we'll see what happens.