This Month in Corruption: Different Schemes to Yield False IDs, Free Cocaine

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Last December, with just a few days left in 2016, I decided to devote some time each month during the upcoming year to tracking new cases of public corruption and providing a summary of those cases in an end-of-the-month blog post for an entire year.

Out of simple curiosity, I’d been reading, for years, every press release out of the offices of the Massachusetts Attorney General, the Massachusetts Inspector General, and the United States Attorney for Massachusetts, a habit that always left me shaking my head.
I’d be amazed by how much corruption “business” these offices had and by how few of the corruption cases, whether they were at the point of indictment or sentencing or somewhere in between, were reported upon in the mainstream media. 

With the opportunity to be a breaker of news, albeit a modest one, I could not help but unleash “This Month in Corruption” on an indifferent world.  It’s been an interesting exercise, bordering at times on the comedic.  [Think “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”]  More often it’s been rather depressing, which is why I’ll close it down on 12-31-17. 
Now to our fleet-footed Month 8:

Aggravated Identity Theft.  Who Knew There Was Such a Thing?  This month was only two days old when word came from the U.S. Justice Department that four employees of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) were among six persons arrested and charged with aggravated identity theft in connection with an alleged scheme to produce false identification documents. 
According to the State House News Service, federal authorities allege that Bivian Yohanny Brea, 41, and Rafael Bonano, 32, also known as “Flako,” conspired with four RMV clerks, who were identified as: Evelyn Medina, 56; Annette Gracia, 37; Kimberly Jordan, 33; and David Brimage, 46.

The Department of Justice claims that Bonano sold Puerto Rican birth certificates and U.S. Social Security cards to Brea for about $900, and that Brea then sold the stolen identities for more than $2,000 to clients seeking legitimate identities in Massachusetts.  The department further alleges that the employees in question accepted cash to use the stolen identities to illegally issue authentic RMV documents, including driver’s licenses and state ID cards.
There’s a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison for persons convicted of aggravated identity theft, which none of the above have yet been.

Shady Cops Squeezing Drug Dealers.  Everyone Knows There Is Such a Thing. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced earlier today (8-31) that John Desantis, Jr., 45, a resident of Methuen and a member of the Lawrence Police Department for 16 years, had agreed to plead guilty to the crime of using his official position to extort cocaine from a drug dealer.  The charge against him is one count of “extortion and attempted extortion under color of official right and through the use of threatened force and fear.”
U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Saylor, IV, deferred acceptance of the guilty plea until Desantis’s sentencing hearing on Nov. 17.

According to federal prosecutors, Desantis purchased small amounts of cocaine from a drug trafficker once or twice a week for 10 months to a year without identifying himself as a police officer.  However, during a drug deal at his home on May 16, 2016, federal prosecutors said, Desantis displayed his badge and firearm, seized his drug dealer’s cocaine, and threatened to arrest the trafficker if he did not continue to supply drugs to him. 
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Desantis will be sentenced to no less than 12 months and no more than 18 months in prison, should the court accept his plea.


Historical Significance Had Little Heft on the Scale of Progress in Booming Malden

Monday, August 28, 2017

The First Church in Malden, Congregational, a once-cherished emblem of the history of Malden, Massachusetts, was wiped out a few weeks ago for the sake of a new downtown development.

The site of the church was contiguous to the Malden Government Center complex (city hall and police headquarters), which had been built in the mid-1970s in the middle of Pleasant Street in an attempt to create a pedestrian shopping mall from that point down to where Pleasant Street spills in to Main Street.  It turned out to be an ill-conceived and ridiculously hopeful project: no mall ever materialized. 
For years, the people of Malden yearned to correct that colossal mistake by demolishing the Government Center and reopening the entire length of Pleasant Street to the smooth flow of vehicular traffic.  Enter the Jefferson Apartment Group of Virginia in 2015.  It proposed spending $100 million to demolish the Government Center; replace it with apartments, offices and hundreds of parking spaces; and re-open Pleasant Street.  The plan hinged on combining the Government Center and church properties.  Suddenly, it made sense to deem the church edifice expendable.

Located at 184 Pleasant Street, the red-brick First Church, with its New-England-classic white steeple, was much more than a beautiful and distinctive building.  It was a direct link to the first European settlers of Mystic Side, the farming hamlet north of Boston that became the town, and later the city, of Malden.
Arriving in 1629, those settlers were Puritans, adherents of the Congregational faith.  Out of that faith ran a current of self-reliance and independent thinking that energized the Revolutionary War and helped to define the resulting institutions of democratic government in the United States.

James F. Cooper, Jr., wrote in his book Tenacious of Their Liberties: The Congregationalists in Colonial Massachusetts that “Congregational thought and practice in fact served as one indigenous seedbed of several concepts that would flourish during the Revolutionary generation, including the notions that government derives its legitimacy from voluntary consent of the governed, governors should be chosen by the governed, rulers should be accountable to the ruled, and constitutional checks should limit both the governors and the people.”  
The First Church was not the original Congregational meeting house in Malden, nor did it occupy the site of the original meeting house.  It was a successor church, a “new” church constructed only 83 years ago, in 1934, when that part of Pleasant Street was the retail hub of greater Malden.  First Church members then were numerous and influential in the community – and justly proud of being able to trace their faith lineage to the Englishmen who founded the city.

Malden is booming. The population has increased by more than 3,000 over the last 15 years and now stands just below 60,000.  New apartment buildings and condos are rising, it seems, on every available site.  Restaurants old and new are busy most nights.  There is even a serious proposal to build a minor league baseball stadium on a former industrial site on the outskirts of downtown.
One can welcome progress of this magnitude.  One can cheer for the city and its leaders because their economy is so robust.  One can celebrate that these developments constitute “smart growth” -- buildings and uses that capitalize on Malden’s proximity to Boston and its connection to mass transit. (The Malden Center stop on the T’s Orange Line sits about a hundred yards from the site of the demolished First Church.)

Still, I have to mourn that something with as much character and historical significance as the First Church could disappear because its congregation had dwindled and the real estate it occupies had become so incredibly valuable.  I feel badly that Malden is like most places in the U.S. in that local citizens are inherently averse to paying more taxes for the preservation of buildings and places of historical importance.
At the tables where big decisions are made on a city’s future, a city’s past has no seat.

We’ve all witnessed circumstances like those that spelled the doom of the First Church in Malden, Congregational.  In our hearts we know that civic pride is wonderful up to the point that we the citizens are invited to uphold it with the dollars from our pockets.

It's Not Etched in Stone that Sales-Tax-Free Weekends Be Held Only in August

Monday, August 21, 2017

This comes as no surprise to the people I work with (nor to my wife) but I was dead damn wrong in my last post, “Guv’s Sales Tax Holiday Bill Looks D.O.A.  Appearances Are Deceiving,” 8-6-17.

I thought Charlie Baker must have set everything up with legislative leaders before filing a last-minute bill August 2 to have a sales tax holiday the weekend of August 19-20.
I believed that despite the immediate negative reaction to the bill from an important House committee chairman, Revenue’s Jay Kaufman, who said it would be a “colossal mistake” to have a sales tax holiday this year.

I figured our governor must have quietly secured support for the idea from House Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg before the filing and that Kaufman must have been out of the loop. I figured wrong.  Kaufman was most definitely in the loop. 
I’m not sure where Baker was.

This past Thursday brought the last possible opportunity for Baker’s sales tax holiday to be enacted. The last informal sessions of the House and Senate prior to the hoped-for event were held that day and the sales tax holiday wasn’t even mentioned.
I have to admit, almost as soon as I posted “…Appearances Are Deceiving,” I started second guessing myself.

Second guessing turned to serious worrying on Tuesday, August 8, when Chairman Kaufman declared he was “certain” there would be no sales tax holiday this year.
And when Friday, August 11, came and went without any action on the bill, I knew I had blown it.

What would be the point of scheduling a sales tax holiday weekend without there being at least one full week to promote it?  
So, if Baker did not have a solid plan in place for the sales tax holiday on August 2, why did he plunge ahead with the bill? 

One can say he did it as a sop to the retailers of Massachusetts, and to the business community as a whole, which is unhappy with him over his failure to persuade the legislature to adopt reforms to the Medicaid program a few weeks ago as part of a state budget that includes new assessments on businesses.
If this conjecture is valid, Baker filed the bill knowing it had no chance but at least comfortable knowing he could lay its failure on the legislature.  A cynical approach like that, however, would mark a big philosophical change in the Baker administration, which puts a premium on dealing sincerely with legislators and not posturing at their expense.

Around the office, I call Charlie Baker “our Eagle Scout governor” because he’s always about solving problems and his eagerness to take on challenges has a refreshingly boyish aspect to it. So I’m going with a simple interpretation of these events:
Baker filed the sales tax holiday bill recognizing that (a) he could not pull it off in August, the time when it has traditionally been held, and (b) he might be able to build a legislative consensus for the holiday sometime later in the year.  There’s no reason why we couldn’t have a sales tax holiday over the Columbus Day weekend, for example, is there? 

Though disappointed it wasn’t held in August, as it has been in 11 of the previous 13 years, retailers would rather see a sales-tax-free weekend happen later than not at all.




Guv's Sales Tax Holiday Bill Looks D.O.A. Appearances Are Deceiving.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Given the hand-in-glove nature of the relationship between the governor and legislature, it’s hard to believe Charlie Baker introduced a bill last week to establish a sales tax holiday on the weekend of August 19-20 if he had any doubts it would be enacted promptly.  Yet, at this point, it appears that the governor’s plan to suspend the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax the weekend after next is in serious trouble. 

The bill was filed on Wednesday, August 2, and, the day after, it was sent by House leaders to the Joint (House-Senate) Committee on Revenue, whereupon Rep. Jay Kaufman of Lexington, the House co-chair of the committee, said it would be a “colossal mistake” to have a sales tax holiday because of how hard it is going to be to balance the state budget this fiscal year.

According to Department of Revenue estimates, the state would forego around $25 million if no taxes were collected on the sale of goods during the third weekend of this month.  (Only purchases of $2,500 or less would be covered by the proposed law.)

In 11 of the past 13 years, there has been a sales tax holiday in August, each authorized year to year by a special act of the legislature.  Bricks-and-mortar retailers, pummeled by online competitors, have practically been begging the Commonwealth to turn that into a 12-of-14 record.  With Amazon getting bigger by the week, how can a Republican governor not feel their pain?

There were already bills before legislative committees to establish permanent two-day sales tax holidays when the governor came up with his bill for a 2017-only holiday. 

House Speaker Robert DeLeo was quoted last Wednesday by the State House News Service as saying “it makes little sense” for the governor to have filed his own bill at this juncture.  That was a typically careful comment from the leader of the lower branch.  DeLeo did not say he was opposed to the bill.  He did not say it made no sense. He only implied that, at first blush, he was puzzled by the governor’s strategy in putting it forward now. 

Puzzlements are like rumors: made to be dispelled…and there’s no one like the nation’s most popular governor at this time (and member of the Bob DeLeo fan club) to do the dispelling.

The governor’s bill looks now to be dead on arrival in the Revenue committee.  This is a money bill and only the House can initiate a money bill; therefore, Chairman Kaufman’s opposition would seem to be dispositive, as the lawyers like to say. 

I’m focusing on how Senate leaders have not yet concurred in the referral of the bill to Revenue.  Senate President Stan Rosenberg and Speaker DeLeo, working quietly together, could now decide to pull the bill from Revenue and send it instead to the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, whose House co-chair, Joe Wagner of Chicopee, is known to favor sales tax holidays.

Wagner could then become the point man in the House for moving the bill, sparing Kaufman from having to disavow his colossal mistake comment as he retreats to the pool of unanimous support for the bill willed suddenly into existence by the Speaker.

The legislature is in recess until September and is holding only informal sessions once or twice a week in August.  Under legislative rules, only “non-controversial” items may be taken up during informal sessions.  If even one member present during an “informal” objects to voting on a bill, it must be immediately tabled, killing the possibility of any action on it that day.

I think the governor had the tacit support of Speaker DeLeo and President Rosenberg when he filed the sales tax holiday bill last Wednesday or was exceedingly confident of winning their support once it was filed.  Baker of course knows that the leaders of both branches can make things happen smoothly and quickly if they want to, and that each leader could secure the acquiescence of any reluctant member of his Democratic caucus on an issue as popular as making taxes disappear for a spell, no matter how short.  (No Republican would think of voting against a deal like this.)  

For two-and-a-half years, Baker, Rosenberg and DeLeo have formed a team as cohesive and as mutually respectful as any could be with players from different parties with different agendas.

We should keep in mind that, just about now, Rosenberg and DeLeo owe Baker one.  Before recessing, the legislature rejected a major initiative dear to the governor’s heart, a package of Medicaid reforms strongly supported by business groups.  To avoid a fight with the legislature, the governor reluctantly signed into law the measure wherein the Medicaid reforms were rejected and accepted a kind of fuzzy offer from the legislature to consider the reforms slowly and deliberately over the next few months.   Business groups, which had been calling for the governor to veto the measure, did not hesitate to criticize him publicly for not vetoing it.  The National Federation of Independent Businesses, for instance, said it was “incredibly disappointed” in Baker.

Baker can begin to mend fences with his natural constituencies in private enterprise by getting a sales tax holiday done in a hurry.  The Democrats who run the legislature can help him do that because they like and respect Baker and value the relationship they have with him.  At the same time, they’ll help their party by giving voters a break at the cash registers on August 19-20.  This colossal mistake will become no big deal in no time. 

Guess what.  Twenty-five million in lost tax revenue in an overall state budget of nearly $40 billion isn’t  a big deal. 

Baker’s new Secretary of Technology Service and Security, Mark Nunnelly, for example, could save at least $25 million by eliminating the state’s 1980s-style, grab bag approach to procuring computer and telecommunications systems and replacing it with the mindset and methods in evidence at scores of successful Massachusetts businesses, universities and medical centers.