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.


Anonymous said...

As I read this I kept thinking of the former President of Westfield State and how angry I was at reading about his, polite word, "hubris". I have a different phrase for the kind of person he is.
Mr. LaFrance is little different in that, as you say, "Why did he think he could get away with it"? If your commentary were published on the front page of the Globe perhaps more of our "trusted" public employees would think twice, or perhaps I should say, take the time to at least think once.

Anonymous said...

He's right where he belongs....

Anonymous said...

well deserved for both of them.

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