It Feels Different When You Know the Person in Government Who Runs Afoul of the Law

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Prior to March 11 of this year, I would have said that I knew Mark LaFrance well.  Mark was not a personal friend but we had a friendly, professional relationship.

He was the manager for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicle (RMV) of the state’s vehicle emissions and safety test program, which is overseen jointly by the RMV and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). 

From 1999 to 2008, I was responsible for producing a quarterly newsletter called “Inspection Update,” working as a subcontractor to the company that administered the program under a long-term contract with the state.  In that capacity, I reported directly to Mark LaFrance and to the program manager for the MassDEP.

I always found Mark, who is 51, to be an intelligent, reasonable, competent and likeable individual.  He knew the vehicle inspection program backwards and forwards.  He was decisive and he communicated well. He seemed to be a popular and respected guy within the RMV.  I always appreciated the help he gave me, which was substantial and continual.   Also, Mark has a sly, off-beat sense of humor, the kind that can make you burst out laughing at improbable moments.  I often left his office smiling and shaking my head.

In 2008, the company administering the vehicle inspection program lost its bid for a new state contract.  My company, Preti Minahan Strategies, was working for that company.  So when that company lost its bid, we lost the “Inspection Update” work.  After that, there wasn’t a reason for me to be in touch with Mark and the folks at MassDEP, although I called him on occasion through the years when I needed information on one thing or another related to the RMV.  He was unfailingly polite and helpful.

On March 11, Mark LaFrance was arrested by agents of the Boston Field Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation outside the office building on Newport Road Extension in Quincy, where the RMV rents a lot of space.  I was told that eight agents in four different cars swooped in as he was leaving work.  They surrounded him in the parking lot, slapped the cuffs on him, and spirited him away for booking.  That struck me as overkill.  One or two agents would have been more than enough.  Mark is not a wise guy or a tough guy.  I never knew him to carry a weapon more dangerous than a ballpoint pen. 

LaFrance was subsequently indicted on charges related to an ongoing scheme whereby he allegedly took money from service station owners in exchange for getting them into the network of stations that conduct the state-mandated annual inspections, a program currently known as Massachusetts Vehicle Check.

Because there are more stations that want to do inspections than there are licenses for performing inspections, the state maintains a waiting list of qualified applicants.  Applicants are taken from the list in the order in which they were put on it and issued licenses that have become available on account of the retirement of an inspection station owner, an owner’s voluntary decision to quit the program, or some other reason. 

Massachusetts Vehicle Check is a mature program with about 1,600 participating stations.  Station owners generally make money on the program, mainly through incidental repairs that come their way when defects are identified during inspections.

Stations on the waiting list can wait years to get into the program.  For stations way down on the list, there’s virtually no chance they’ll ever be chosen because there’s so little turnover.

According to the documents filed in the case by federal authorities, LaFrance worked with Simon Abou Raad, a station owner from Tyngsboro, in identifying inspection stations that might be willing to transfer their licenses to stations on the waiting list through sham mergers.  Abou Raad would allegedly negotiate prices for facilitating the deals.  According to the authorities, when a price was agreed upon, Abou Raad would transfer the inspection equipment from one station to another, and LaFrance would use his authority and computer access to make the new owner’s entry into the program appear to be a routine matter.  By these and other means, it was alleged that LaFrance and Abou Raad collected some $657,000 over six or seven years.

Mark’s arrest made me realize again the hubris it takes to make some everyday conclusions, like when we assume we know somebody well.   Do we ever know anyone well, or really well?

When somebody I know gets in trouble with the law, my first reaction is usually, “What was he thinking?”  That’s probably the wrong way to put it.  When I read or hear the details of such a case, I’m usually struck by the flaws in the scheme and how obvious the flaws are.  So I should be saying, “Why did he think he could get away with it?” Not: “What was he thinking?”

I got a copy of the affidavit filed by one of the FBI agents involved in the LaFrance-Abou Raad case.  It’s a public record; anybody can get it.

“On February 6, 2012,” the affidavit says, “an FBI confidential human source (‘CHS’) informed the FBI that it had knowledge that individuals were paying bribes in order to receive a license to perform Massachusetts motor vehicle safety inspections.  CHS, who owns two Massachusetts service stations (only one of which is licensed to conduct vehicle inspections), was informed by an acquaintance and fellow service station owner that if the CHS wanted to acquire an inspection box (and license to conduct inspections) for an additional service station, the CHS would have to negotiate with and pay Abou Raad.”

The agent who wrote and signed the affidavit stated that it was based, in part, on his “review of intercepted electronic communications, records, documents, business records and recordings of consensually monitored conversations.” 

In other words, the FBI was bugging LaFrance’s phone and prying into his email whenever they felt like it.

The fall of Mark LaFrance has obviously been a disaster for him and his family.  The feds have made an example of him.  In August, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud and conspiracy to extort money “under color of official right.”  On Nov. 22, he was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge George A. O’Toole to three years in prison, two years of supervised release, a $12,500 fine, and forfeiture of $50,000 in illegal proceeds.

Abou Raad has also pleaded guilty to the charges lodged against him.  I’m guessing that, when he’s sentenced on Dec. 12, Abou Raad will receive a much lighter sentence than LaFrance.  After all, the station owners who paid him were eager to make a deal.  They obviously thought the prices were worth it to obtain the benefits of doing inspections.  Abou Raad did not have any authority to abuse.

LaFrance made a big mistake and is paying a big price.  He’s not the devil and is not a threat to anyone.  I can only hope they keep him in a safe, minimum-security facility.  This is about punishment and deterring corruption in government, I understand, but a non-violent, first-time offender should not have to fear being harmed when in prison.

This has been a tough case for the RMV.  In the final analysis, however, it’s more like a small blemish than a large stain.  Authorities estimate that the entire caper involved 10 or so inspection licenses and/or inspection machines.  Those 10 represent 0.625% of all the inspection stations in the state.

The arrest of Mark LaFrance no doubt felt like a terrible setback to the people in the RMV when it happened.  With the passage of time, its actual negative impact has been negligible.  Today, the Massachusetts Vehicle Check program is stronger and better, with more safeguards and more integrity, than it had on March 10, 2013.  

ADDENDUM:  The sentencing of Simon Abou Raad was postponed to Tuesday, Jan. 21.  According to the Office of the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Abou Raad was given three years in prison and two years of supervised release, and was fined $10,000.  He was also ordered to forfeit $360,000 in illegal proceeds.

Obamacare 'Disaster' Has Implications for MA Politicians and Bay State's National Sway

Monday, November 18, 2013

The problems with the roll-out of Obamacare have most members of the Republican Party salivating.

They believe Obamacare is the key to winning big in the mid-term congressional elections next year and expanding their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Greg Walden, the congressman from Oregon who chairs the Republican campaign committee in the House, calls Obamacare a “Category 5 political hurricane,” the defining issue of the 2014 elections.

In a recent New York Times analysis, (“As Troubles Pile Up, a Crisis of Confidence,” Friday, Nov. 15), Michael D. Shear wrote:

“The difficulties have put Mr. Obama on the defensive at exactly the moment he might have seized political advantage in a dysfunctional Washington.  If not for the health care disaster, the two-week shutdown of the government last month would have been an opportunity for Mr. Obama to sharpen the contrast with Republicans.  Democratic lawmakers expressed growing frustration on Thursday with the opportunities the party had missed to hammer home the ideological differences between the two parties.  The lawmakers say there is intensifying anxiety within the Democratic caucus that the poor execution of the health care law could bleed into their 2014 re-election campaigns.”

Most observers, I guess, wouldn’t bet a dollar today that the Democrats will win enough seats to displace Republicans as the majority in the House and take the power that comes with majority status.  An awesome power it is.

Republicans and Democrats now hold, respectively, 231 and 200 seats in the 435-member House.  (Four seats are vacant.)  If every seat in Congress were filled, Democrats would need at least 218 to form a majority.  Can the number of Democrat reps possibly grow at that rate, 9%, when their party leader, Obama, is struggling to stay on his feet?

There are two Democrat congressmen from Massachusetts, Jim McGovern and Richie Neal, who devoutly wish it to be possible.  Every Massachusetts citizen who votes as if his self-interest is his compass should wish similarly.

There’s plenty of time, as it is measured in politics, for Obama to turn things around, and for his fellow Democrats to gain fortitude and standing from such a feat.  But history is not on the side of the Democrats.  Usually, the president’s party loses House seats in the mid-terms.  When that party does defy the norm and gain seats, it does not usually increase its numbers by 9% or 10%.

If that were to happen, McGovern and Neal would almost certainly become the chairs of two of the most powerful committees in Congress, House Rules and House Ways and Means, respectively.

According to a government-operated website,, the Rules Committee is “amongst the oldest standing committees in the House” and is “the mechanism that the Speaker uses to maintain control of the House Floor.”  The committee, it says, “has the authority to do virtually anything during the course of consideration of a measure.”

If you wonder how power like that translates in the real world, go to Boston and tour the magnificent John Joseph Moakley federal courthouse on the South Boston waterfront.  While you’re at it, take a walk across the nearby Evelyn Moakley Bridge, the federally subsidized span that Moakley had named for his wife. 

Joe Moakley, the late, beloved congressman from South Boston, served as chairman of the Rules Committee for years (1989-95) when the Democrats held sway in the House.  He put a young Jim McGovern on his congressional staff and tutored him in the art of politics.  Jimmy was a quick learner.

When McGovern ran for Congress himself, at age 37, from a Worcester-based district, Moakley was an unofficial campaign advisor.  He welcomed his protégé to the Congressional club by telling him, “Don’t do something stupid, like run for Senate.”  Moakley knew the advantages of remaining patiently on the ladder of the lower branch -- and the (largely hidden) value of those advantages.

The aforementioned government website notes that Ways and Means is the oldest committee of the United States Congress, and is the chief tax-writing committee in the House. 

Taxes equal money.  Money equals power. 

Every item of revenue in the U.S. government must originate in House Ways and Means.

At, it also says that the roster of committee members “who’ve gone on to serve in higher office is impressive. Eight Presidents and eight Vice Presidents have served on Ways and Means, as have 21 Speakers of the House of Representatives, and four Justices of the Supreme Court.”  

If you object to House pooh-bahs acting like royalty, if you don't like their indulging their egos by doing things like naming bridges after their wives, I get it.

But if you object to your home-state congressmen skillfully beating congressmen from other states at The Capitol games, if you get squeamish when our pooh-bahs deliver the goods to Massachusetts, as Tip O’Neill did the federal funds for the Big Dig, I don’t get it.

It may not be pretty.  Not much in politics (or human nature) is. 

Practiced within the bounds of law, politics is infinitely preferable to the other ways power is seized and used in this world.

Consider Yon Rocket Ship, the Brief and Amazing Political Career of Katherine Clark

Friday, November 8, 2013

Few people ever go as far and as fast in politics as Katherine Clark has.

In the fall of 2001, she was elected to the Melrose School Committee on her first try for public office.  She’d lived in Melrose barely a year then.

On Dec. 10, barring an upset of incredible dimensions, Clark, a 50-year-old Democrat, will be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the 5th Massachusetts District.

When she takes office shortly thereafter, the youthful Clark will have gone, in just under 12 years, from representing 28,000 people in one community to 700,000-plus citizens in 24 communities -- and from the obscurity of an unpaid school board post to the bright lights of the national stage and a $3,346-a-week congressional paycheck.

Of course, there were some interesting stops for the Cornell Law grad in between.  She was a key policy advisor to Attorney General Martha Coakley and a state rep in a district that included her city, Melrose, and half of the neighboring town of Wakefield, before moving up to the Massachusetts Senate in the Fifth Middlesex District, [Malden, Melrose, Wakefield, Stoneham, Reading and Lynnfield].

Clark was beginning her second senate term earlier this year when she declared an interest in succeeding Ed Markey in the event Markey ran for the U.S. Senate seat of John Kerry, who was emerging as President Obama’s preferred choice for Secretary of State.  Markey soon jumped at Kerry’s job, and Clark at Markey’s.  She was the first candidate in the Democratic primary, which proved to be a key advantage in a long race that eventually attracted six other candidates.

The primary election was held Oct. 15.  Clark won going away.  Her vote total of 21,983 put her 6,680 votes ahead of a very formidable, tested, regional candidate, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. In the order of finish behind Koutoujian were: Medford-Somerville state rep Carl Sciortino, Belmont state senator William Brownsberger, Framingham state senator Karen Spilka, Paul Maisano and Martin Long.  (Maisano and Long have backgrounds in business.)

The 5th Congressional District stretches from Winthrop and Revere in the east to Framingham and Ashland in the west, from Woburn and Lexington in the north to Waltham and Weston in the south.  It contains at least nine communities with populations larger than that of Clark’s Melrose.  Some of them, like Arlington, Framingham, Medford, Malden, Revere and Waltham, are much more populous than Melrose.  Also, politics in these places can be much rougher than the brand usually practiced in the Melroses of the world.  

So when a sophomore state senator from out of town manages to top the ticket in places where she’s never appeared on the ballot before, as Clark did in Arlington, Medford and Woburn, and to come in second where she's never been on the ballot before, as she did in Revere, Holliston and Winthrop, she’s showing a political IQ and a charisma that are almost off the charts.  

It has been said that a candidate for President of the United States demonstrates his capacity for the biggest, most difficult job in the world, in part, by running a successful campaign. If that is true, a Katherine Clark has done something similar in her soon-to-be-victorious march to D.C.  She designed and put together a large, expensive campaign apparatus.  She raised a ton of money.  She crafted a campaign theme and message that positioned her well in the field.  She enlisted a legion of newfound allies.  She spoke persuasively at countless rallies and debates. She provided constant inspiration to her campaign team.  She used her time and her physical/mental/spiritual capabilities to the max.  She executed the game plan.  Otherwise, she would have lost. 

We can believe Clark has the stuff to be a good congresswoman.

When Clark wins on Dec. 10, she’ll be moving to an elite level of Massachusetts politics.*  Today she's one of 40 state senators and of 200 state legislators overall.  By mid-December, she’ll be one of only 9 Massachusetts members of the U.S. House.  It has not been an entirely smooth progression.  Therein lay clues as to why Clark prevailed in that seven-person, 24-community Democratic primary.

In 2004, when she’d been on the Melrose School Committee just two years, Clark ran against the savvy, long-term Republican incumbent in the Fifth Middlesex senate district, Richard Tisei.  She didn’t win but did respectably well.  Most significantly, she demonstrated audacity, (fortune favors the brave), and the wits needed to wage a sprawling, prolonged, uphill battle against a powerful and popular incumbent. What Clark learned in 2004 obviously helped her to be an effective candidate when she ran for rep in 2007 and senator (again) in 2010.

In 2009-10, Clark put her talents at the disposal of her former mentor, Martha Coakley, in Coakley’s campaign for U.S. Senate.  On the night of the election, Jan. 19, 2010, when Coakley was sunk under the wave of the Scott Brown campaign, it fell to the telegenic Clark to be Coakley’s spokesperson to the broadcast media. 

Given the shock and gloom of the occasion, she handled the task better than anyone had a right to expect.  Clark was composed, gracious, upbeat, articulate and credible over the course of multiple, live, on-air interviews.  She never wilted, even a tad, in the heat of the television lights or the awkwardness of explaining the loss to the well-groomed media bulldogs. 

There were certainly pressure-packed occasions for Clark in the race for the Democratic nomination in the 5th District, but I can’t imagine many of them matching the media grinder she serenely entered on 1-19-10 for Coakley.

Ernest Hemingway famously defined courage as “grace under pressure.”  Clark has it.  If you want further proof, consider that she personally borrowed $250,000 and loaned it to her congressional campaign just before the primary, as she was allowed by law to do. When she’s a congresswoman, Clark will not have great difficulty raising the money to pay off that loan; had she lost on Oct. 15, the opposite would be true.

Courage like that helps to explain the velocity of Clark’s career.  If she maintains her current speed, it’s not unrealistic to see the governor’s suite or the U.S. Senate in her future.

*The Massachusetts delegation to the U.S. House has been a veritable breeding ground of House Speakers since the birth of the nation.  In the 20th Century alone, four Speakers were congressmen from Massachusetts: Frederick Gillett (1919-25), Joseph W. Martin (1947-49 and 1953-55), John W. McCormack (1961-71), and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (1977-87).

INTERESTING FACT:  Clark will be the first non-resident of Malden to represent the 5th Massachusetts District in 69 years.  Ed Markey held the seat from 1976 to this June, and the late Torby Macdonald had it before Markey, from 1955 to 1976.  Markey is, Macdonald was, a lifelong Malden resident.

ANOTHER INTERESTING FACT: Clark will be “returning” the 5th District seat to Melrose. The person who held it before Torby Macdonald was Angier L. Goodwin (1881-1975), one of the most prominent Melrosians of his day.  Goodwin served as Melrose’s mayor, state rep and state senator before going to the U.S. House (1943-55).

God Knows Why, but People Apparently Give More Credence to Married Candidates

Friday, November 1, 2013

It has been said that the television camera is a kind of character x-ray.   Candidates submit to unscripted video at their peril!

If you’re a fake or a lightweight, you will reveal yourself on camera no matter how hard and skillfully you dissemble. Most people who see you on the tube will become a little uneasy and will form a negative opinion of you, if only at the subconscious level.

I subscribe to this theory, which is why I was not surprised to see Marty Walsh do well in a recent online video of a conversation with Boston Globe columnist Larry Harmon at a Jamaican restaurant in Dorchester, Lorenz Island Cuisine.  He's the opposite of fake. You can watch it by clicking on:

Rep. Walsh is locked in a tight race for Mayor of Boston with City Councilor John Connolly.  The best pollsters are going sleepless, trying to figure out who’ll win, with less than a week to the election.

In the “My Dinner with Larry” interview, Harmon cites data indicating that Walsh “polls much better among men than women,” and asks Walsh why.

Walsh, 46, says he cannot give a good answer and is trying to even out the popularity disparity.  He speculates that not being married, and not having any children, may have something to do with it.  He adds that he loves and cares very much for his girlfriend of eight years, Lorrie Higgins, and her daughter.

“Would it kill you to marry her?” Harmon asks.

No, it wouldn’t, Walsh says, but if he’d asked Lorrie to marry him at any point in the last half year or so, she might have thought he was asking just to bolster his appeal as a mayoral candidate, and he would never want her to have a doubt like that.

One would think that a male or female candidate, in the second decade of the 21st Century, in a society devoted to personal freedom and personal expression, would not have to give a second thought to his/her marital status.

One might even think that Walsh could present his bachelor status as a positive thing, as a sign, for example, of the serious approach he takes to holy matrimony.  But he’s probably wise to play it affably low key and trust people to take him as he is. 

Wrongly, I think, people tend to view married people more favorably, at least people they don’t really know.

For an hilarious take on this phenomenon, consider the scene in the 2006, Boston-based movie “The Departed,” where George Ellerby, the character played by Alec Baldwin, congratulates Colin Sullivan, the character played by Matt Damon, on his pending marriage because “marriage is an important part of getting ahead.  For anyone who loves the way Baldwin can deliver an outrageous line, it’s an exquisite 30 seconds of film.  You can find it on YouTube at:

WALSH FRONT-PAGE NEWS IN BIG APPLE: The New York Times ran an excellent story this week on Marty Walsh’s recovery, now in its 18th year, from alcoholism; on how he has helped other alcoholics stop drinking; and on how so many of the people he’s helped are now working hard to get him elected mayor, (“In Recovery From Addiction, Backing Candidate With Past,” 10/30/13).  “…what is especially unusual about his (Walsh’s) story is how his candidacy has motivated others in the wide universe of recovery to shed their anonymity to support him,” the article notes. “Former alcoholics and drug addicts are not typical voting blocs.  Most do not want to be identified.  Because of privacy issues, they are hard to recruit…But those who have stepped forward for Mr. Walsh bring an evangelical fervor to their mission.  It is the least they can do, some say, for a man who saved their lives.”  The article may be found at: