A Ryan Succeeds a Lion in the Law Enforcement World of Massachusetts

Friday, May 31, 2013

If you think you have a challenging job, consider Marian Ryan’s situation.  She’s the new district attorney of Middlesex County, filling the seat long held by Gerry Leone. 
Ryan was chosen by Governor Deval Patrick last month to succeed Leone, who resigned to join Nixon Peabody, a Boston law firm.  Ryan’s appointment runs for the two years remaining on Leone’s term.  She’s hoping to be elected to her own four-year term after that.  
Taking Leone’s position is one thing, replacing him is another. 
I’m not knocking Ryan.  She’s been an assistant district attorney for 30 years and apparently knows the office backwards and forwards.  Everything said publicly about her is positive. 
I’m just saying Leone set new performance standards for district attorneys during the six years he was the top law enforcement officer in the state’s largest, most populous county.  Current and future DA’s have a lot to live up to because of him.
Leone is smart, tough, indefatigable and extremely disciplined.  He’s a workhorse.  In every job he ever held, including Assistant District Attorney, Criminal Bureau Chief in the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General, and First Assistant U.S. Attorney, he handled super-human caseloads.
Leone’s work ethic, combined with his fierce concern for the victims of the criminals he prosecuted, made him an especially compelling and admirable public figure.
In a profile of Leone that ran in the Boston Globe back in the summer of 2008, the mother of an assault victim whose assailant had been successfully prosecuted by Leone was quoted as saying, “He (Leone) should run for governor.”
Former Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly once said, “If I had a son, I’d want him to be just like Gerry Leone.”
Former Senate Ways & Means Chairman Steve Panagiotakos, the mahatma of the Merrimack, said when Leone announced his resignation as DA, “It’s a big loss for us.  Gerry was the consummate district attorney.”
Leone was like the Clark Kent of district attorneys: never flamboyant, always business-like.  But when he stepped before a microphone, or put out a statement, people paid attention.  He usually said something genuine.  For example, after his office won a murder conviction in early March against Nathaniel Fujita, a young man who’d murdered his former girlfriend in Wayland, he said:
“Today, Nathaniel Fujita has been found guilty of brutally murdering Lauren Astley.  While we are very grateful for the measure of justice delivered by the jury’s verdict, there remains an overwhelming sadness and emptiness amongst so many who are still working to process and recover from this unspeakably evil act.  Primary among the community who feel such profound loss are Lauren’s parents, who displayed such personal grace, strength and resilience despite the anguish and torment caused by the dark and evil actions of this defendant that robbed them of enjoying the light of their lives who was their only daughter.  We will continue to work as hard as we can, in concert with our community partners, to ensure that young people know there are options and resources available to them when they are in need of help to prevent teen dating and relationship violence.”
I heard some speculation that Leone, who is 50 years old and lives in Hopkinton, decided to walk away because he was sick of the depraved nature of the worst crimes he had to deal with.  One recent case, involving a man accused of raping thirteen infants and toddlers, was said to have weighed heavily on him for a long spell.
I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s plausible, given the way he took his work to heart.
I hope Leone’s departure was more a case of wanting a change in professional circumstances and an opportunity to make more money to provide for his family.  As DA, Leone earned $148,843 a year.  At Nixon Peabody, he can make twice that or more.
In a press release on Leone’s hiring, Andrew Glincher, Nixon Peabody’s managing partner, said, “Gerry’s arrival is a visible example of how we are bringing value to our clients in new ways.”  Translation: We’re going to monetize the Leone brand.
Leone did not come from a wealthy family.  He’s knocked himself out on the public payroll for decades, always giving 110%. Now he has a shot at a lucrative career in private practice.  He’d be crazy not to take it.

Senate President's Involvement Guarantees Serious Look at Raising the Minimum Wage

Friday, May 24, 2013

“We are not seeing any good news when it comes to what workers are being paid,” Senate President Therese Murray told an audience gathered at a downtown hotel for a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast on April 11.
“We must address the rate of pay for workers in Massachusetts,” she declared.
Murray has always stood up for legislation she believes will protect the living standards of the middle class.  “The middle class built this country, and we will never help this country by weakening the middle class,” she has said on numerous occasions.
It is a position Murray shares with many notable figures across the nation -- Joseph Stiglitz, who won a Nobel prize in economics, for instance.
“…the hollowing out of the middle class since the 1970s, a phenomenon interrupted only briefly in the 1990s, means that they  are unable to invest in their future, by educating themselves and their children and by starting or improving businesses,” Stiglitz wrote in a New York Times “Opinionator” piece on January 19, 2013.
The middle class is squeezed from all sides.  After a middle class wage earner pays her taxes, her health insurance premiums and co-pays, her mortgage, her car payment, her fuel bills and her children's college tuitions, she doesn't have much left for frills like restaurant meals, theater tickets, and vacation get-aways.

But if things are tough for the middle class, they're brutal for those at the bottom of the scale, the minimum wage earners.  If you work full-time for the minimum wage in Massachusetts, which now stands at $8 an hour, you make $16,707 a year -- almost $7,000 below the federal poverty level of $23,550 for a family of four.

Senate President Murray clearly favors an increase in the state’s minimum wage, but she has shied away from saying how much she thinks it should be raised.  This makes sense.  Why get pinned down on a particular number at this point in the legislative calendar?
If Murray said, for example, that the minimum wage should be $11, as some in the legislature have asserted, she would sacrifice room she may need to maneuver in if a wage bill gets nears the Senate floor.  She’d also risk taking fire prematurely from businesses who may be opposed to a minimum wage hike.
Better to get the conversation going, prod it along, and hope a consensus emerges on what is both desirable and achievable.
The last time the minimum wage went up was over five years ago, in January, 2008.
Two weeks after speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber, Murray again raised the issue of pay for workers in remarks to a delegation from the Affiliated Chambers of Greater Springfield.
“When you don’t make a living wage, government and business pay taxes that fill in that gap,” she said.  “So when you say government has grown too large, what you’re getting is government is paying for day care, for subsidized day care, for subsidized meals at school, breakfast, lunch and dinners and after-school programs.  We’re paying for transportation.  We’re paying for subsidized housing.  We’re paying for fuel assistance in conjunction with the federal government.  So you’re paying it anyway.”
A minimum wage worker's annual earnings, she noted, are almost $12,000 below what is required for someone to be economically independent in Massachusetts.
As she was leaving the Senate Reading Room, where the Springfield area group was gathered, Murray was asked if she had an idea of where the minimum wage should be today.  “Not at the moment,” she said. “I’ve been meeting with lots of people who have a great interest in talking about it.”
Astute political leaders, like the Senate President, strive for balance in a bill that tinkers with the economy.  Push too hard for workers and they could inhibit investment and growth.  Bow too deep to capitalistic prerogatives and they could produce nothing meaningful for workers.
My guess is that Murray believes it’s time to err on the side of the low-wage workers of the Commonwealth.  I think she’d agree with Stiglitz that inequality in income, and other areas of life, is hindering the performance of our free enterprise system.
Stiglitz, in his January 19 Opinionator column, said:
“In this election (the November presidential election), each side debated issues that deeply worry me: the long malaise into which the economy seems to be settling, and the growing divide between the 1 percent and the rest – an inequality not only of outcomes but also of opportunity.  To me, these problems are two sides of the same coin: with inequality at its highest level since before the Depression, a robust recovery will be difficult in the short term, and the American dream – a good life in exchange for hard work – is slowly dying.
“Politicians typically talk about rising inequality and the sluggish recovery as separate phenomena, when they are in fact intertwined.  Inequality stifles, restrains and holds back our growth.  When even the free-market-oriented magazine The Economist argues – as it did in a special feature in October – that the magnitude and nature of the country’s inequality represent a serious threat to America, we should know that something has gone horribly wrong.  And yet, after four decades of widening inequality and the greatest economic downturn since the Depression, we haven’t done anything about it.”
Stiglitz was one of ten signatories to a letter submitted last July to Congressional leaders recommending a three-phase increase in the federal minimum wage over three years totaling $2.55.  Currently, the federal minimum is $7.25 an hour. 
“This policy would directly provide higher wages for close to 20 million workers by 2014,” the letter stated.  “Furthermore, another 9 million workers whose wages are just above the new minimum would likely see a wage increase through ‘spillover’ effects, as employers adjust their internal wage ladders.  The vast majority of employees who would benefit are adults in working families, disproportionately women, who work at least 20 hours a week and depend on these earnings to make ends meet.  At a time when persistent high unemployment is putting enormous downward pressure on wages, such a minimum wage increase would provide a much-needed boost to the earnings of low-wage workers.”
Others who signed this letter included Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at MIT; Michael Reich, director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California at Berkeley; and Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration.
In the current session of the Massachusetts legislature, two bills have been filed to raise the state’s minimum wage.  The one with the strongest support appears to be House 1701, An Act to Improve the Commonwealth’s Economy with a Strong Minimum Wage.  An identical bill in the upper branch is Senate 878.
House 1701 and Senate 878 would increase the minimum wage in three steps, bringing it to $11 by January 1, 2016.  Thereafter, the legislation would mandate annual minimum wage hikes proportionate to cost-of-living increases tied to the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers.
Forty-seven members of the House (29% of the body) and fourteen members of the Senate (35%) are co-sponsoring these bills.  That’s a formidable bloc. 
We’ll learn how formidable the opposition is on June 11, the day the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development will hold a hearing on both.

PEOPLE STRONGLY SUPPORT UPPING THE MINIMUM: In a Suffolk University/7 News poll released earlier this month, 77% of respondents said they supported a $2 increase in the minimum wage, to $10 an hour.  In that same poll, 61% said Massachusetts was still in a recession. 

Speaker Pro Tem's Bill Stresses Link Between Dangerous Driving and Crippling, High-Cost Injuries

Monday, May 20, 2013

The only thing I don’t like about House Bill 3067 is the title: An Act Relative to the Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund.  Too bland. 
I would prefer something like An Act to Make Dangerous Drivers Pay More for Vital Medical Research, or An Act to Increase Penalties on Aggressive and Careless Motorists.
HB 3067 would double the surcharge on drivers seeking reinstatement of their licenses after losing them for speeding, and double the portion of the surcharge sent to the state’s Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund.
Under current law, the state imposes a $50 license reinstatement surcharge on speeders, while allocating the first $25 of the surcharge to the Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund.  If HB 3067 becomes law, the surcharge would jump to $100 and the trust fund would receive $50 every time it is levied.
Established by Chapter 276 of the Acts of 2004, the Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund helps support research into cures for paralyzing spinal injuries.  The State Treasurer serves as fund custodian.
The legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation conducted a hearing on HB 3067 this past Thursday at the State House.  Among those testifying for the bill were some folks who’d been severely injured in accidents caused by dangerous drivers.
According to the State House News Service, Michael Estrada of West Roxbury told the committee that roughly 350 Massachusetts residents suffer serious spinal cord injuries every year, and that most of them are hurt in car accidents.  Estrada was a young man in training to be a police officer when his motorcycle was hit by a car several years ago.  Now he gets around in a wheelchair.
Speeding is defined as exceeding the posted speed limit or driving too fast for prevailing road or weather conditions. 
We’ve all speeded at one time or another.  But this bill is not targeted at the occasional, mild offender.  To lose your license for speeding in Massachusetts, you have to be found guilty of speeding three times within any 12-month period. 
You can also lose your license for receiving five or more moving violations or surchargeable offenses in any three-year period.  If An Act Relative to the Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund goes on the books, the number of moving violations or surchargeable offenses triggering a license revocation would drop from five to three.
Research by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) shows that the “risk of having a crash is increased both for vehicles traveling slower than the average speed, and for those traveling above the average speed.”  The risk of being injured “increases exponentially” with speeds much faster than the median speed, the FHA says.
SmartMotorist.com estimates that speeding-related crashes cost U.S. society more than $22 billion a year.
So, by all means, double the surcharge on speeders who want to regain the privilege of driving in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Thank you, House Speaker Pro Tem Patricia Haddad of Somerset, for sponsoring An Act Relative to the Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund.  And thank you, Senator Marc Pacheco of Taunton and Representative Paul McMurtry of Dedham, for co-sponsoring it.
If the bill passes, please consider supplementing it next session with legislation requiring repeat offenders to sport bumper stickers that say: Chronic Speeder on Board.  I want to know who to steer clear of.

New Report Strengthens Case That It's Time for the Feds to Let Sal DiMasi Go

Monday, May 13, 2013

Maybe now Sal DiMasi, the 67-year-old, cancer-stricken former Speaker of the Massachusetts House, will have a shot at getting out of prison.
That was my reaction to a recent report (May 1) from Michael E. Horowitz, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice, who says the federal Bureau of Prisons isn’t managing its “compassionate release” program to optimal effect.
If it were better managed, the Horowitz report says, the government could save a lot of money, reduce prison overcrowding, and not put the public at any greater risk.  All good.  
Many prisoners who fit existing guidelines for compassionate release pose little or no risk because they’re old and in poor health, the report noted.
DiMasi is a gentle, humane, gregarious soul who never threatened anybody’s health or well-being.  The only reason to put him in jail in the first place was to punish him and make an example of him. 
He had broken the law, and violated the trust placed in him by voters, when he facilitated a shady deal to sell computer software to the state.  It was not a particularly sophisticated or clever scheme.  People who know DiMasi well still can’t believe he did it.  It was so out of character.
On November 30, 2011, roughly a year and a half ago, DiMasi began an eight-year sentence.  He’s now served about one-fifth of the time given him by the judge.
You can argue that 18 months in prison is not much, considering what DiMasi was convicted of and the high office he held.  Or you can argue that depriving anybody of their freedom for even a month or two is a big deal.  Time passes slowly when you’re locked in a cage most of the day and ordered around like dog.
I would argue that, just by mishandling DiMasi’s cancer treatment, the Bureau of Prisons inflicted unreasonable punishment on the former speaker and should set him free.  Now.
Remember how DiMasi, only a few weeks into his imprisonment, reported to authorities that lumps had appeared in his neck, and how the cancer, which had started in his mouth, was not definitively diagnosed until the following May, by which time it was a case of Stage 4 oral cancer?
People with that diagnosis usually have less than a 40% chance of being alive in five years.  DiMasi could die before seeing the outside of a prison again.
I would argue that DiMasi’s well documented, decades-long history of helping needy individuals and organizations from across the state, and not just from his North End, Boston, district, is a strong reason to parole him now.   “Sal was always a soft touch.  If you legitimately needed help, you were never turned away from his office,” says a young man who worked for him when he was speaker.
And I would remind anyone opposed to granting DiMasi clemency now that he lost a great deal more than his speakership, freedom and health in the Cognos software scandal.  His reputation was ruined, his savings and assets were consumed in his legal defense, his state pension was rescinded, and his license to practice law revoked. 
DiMasi sits confined and isolated in a distant, out-of-state prison cell, hundreds of miles from his home and family.  Reportedly, he weighs 60 pounds less than he did two years ago, the result of battling cancer and having to be fed through a tube inserted in his stomach.  By any definition, he is a broken man.
Under existing federal regulations, the director of the Bureau of Prisons may ask the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and the Office of the Deputy U.S. Attorney General to reduce an inmate’s sentence based on “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances that were not known at the time of an inmate’s sentencing.
The federal judge who sentenced DiMasi obviously did not know that the former speaker would come down with cancer.  And he did not know that the Bureau of Prisons would take a “What? Me Worry?” approach to diagnosing DiMasi’s illness and initiating proper treatment.
That sounds like enough “extraordinary” and enough “compelling” to let Sal DiMasi go.  

Once Casino Dollars Flow, City Leaders Should Park Dough in Bank, Start Thinking Long-Term

Friday, May 3, 2013

If tens of millions of dollars in casino payments start flowing into the Everett city treasury, how will the city ever say no to a public employee union again?
Likewise, how will the city ever say no to a good, local organization, public or private, that wants a portion of those payments for a worthwhile-but-previously-too-costly project?
And how will the city ever be able to turn down a poor, disabled or disadvantaged local resident who desperately needs assistance, financial and otherwise?  
[The cynical dog in me can’t help but also ask, How will the city prevent an influx of ambulance-chasing attorneys bent on turning every slip and fall on a local sidewalk into the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby?]
Answer: City leaders should declare from the outset that Everett intends to use its casino windfall solely for capital improvements, strategic investments, such as eliminating the huge unfunded liability in the city employee pension fund, and targeted initiatives in public education, especially in pre-school through third grade, where children are most vulnerable and the payoffs are greatest for professional intervention.
In other words, Everett should tell everybody in town to chill out, this money is not for making us feel good today, it is for making the entire community better over the long haul, as measured by the timelines and tools of historians.  
For the purposes of this blog post, let’s assume that Wynn Resorts will win the competition for the state license to operate a casino in eastern Massachusetts.
Under the host city agreement Wynn recently concluded with the mayor of Everett, Wynn Resorts is obligated to pay the city $30 million on the day it starts constructing a casino on a large Mystic River-front site on lower Broadway/Route 99.
And let’s assume Wynn is ready to break ground a year from now, on May 15, 2014.
No later than 30 days before the groundbreaking, the mayor should announce that he intends to deposit  all but $450,000 (1.5%) of that $30-million-dollar initial payment in a special account and leave it there, untouched, for 18 to 24 months.  (The mayor will have already spoken with members of the City Council and persuaded a majority of them to go along with his don’t-touch approach.)
Further, the mayor should say that he intends to spend that $450,000 slice of the casino pie on just two items:
·         One, advice from a nationally recognized money management expert on how to invest and manage that initial payment from Wynn, and all subsequent payments, so as to achieve the best long-term results; and,
·         Two, an engineering study that would thoroughly evaluate the city’s infrastructure – roads, sidewalks and bridges, water and sewer pipes, parks and playgrounds, school and municipal buildings, etc. – in order to determine the best, most cost effective ways to upgrade and maintain those critical assets over the next 50 to 100 years, while fostering optimal development of the local economy.    
Further, the mayor should announce that he will introduce an ordinance change to establish a permanent casino revenue oversight structure in the city.  The purposes would be to ensure that, when the city spends any of its casino dollars, all laws governing municipal expenditures and procurements were followed, and that all records of those activities were promptly and permanently posted online.
At the apex of the oversight structure, the mayor should signal his intention to appoint a new casino auditor whose salary will be paid entirely by casino dollars.  The casino auditor will be given primary responsibility for: (a) ensuring proper allocation of casino proceeds, (b) periodic reports on all casino-related revenue and spending, and (c) complete transparency of all records pertaining to casino-related income and outgo.
To ensure the independence and integrity of the position, the mayor will stipulate that the casino auditor be a certified public account, a non-resident of Everett, and have no family members currently serving in elective offices in the community.
As an added safeguard, the ordinance change will contain language relative to the appointment and operation of a new, unpaid, five-member, municipal Casino Oversight Board.  The board will assist the casino auditor in the definition and performance of his or her duties, and regularly certify that the casino auditor is doing his/her job with a high degree of integrity and effectiveness.
Appointments to the Casino Oversight Board would be made through several separate and independent pathways. Each of the following would be allowed to appoint a board member: the Attorney General of the Commonwealth, the Inspector General of the Commonwealth, the Mayor of Everett, the Everett City Council, and the Everett School Committee.  Everett residents could serve on the board, but so could out-of-towners. 
The casino auditor will report to the Casino Oversight Board and could be removed from office by the mayor, with the concurrence of a supermajority of the board (4 members).
These are just a few of the ways that a sincere, well intentioned cadre of municipal leaders could deal with the scary challenges and problems of using casino revenue wisely.  No doubt there are many other ways.
But if nothing new is done in this regard, the municipal equivalent of a “lottery winner tragedy” is almost bound to occur.