Clarence Fanto: State house patronage must stop

Sunday November 25, 2012

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Here is the perfect resume for a key public-safety post in the Patrick administration: A record of 34 driving violations dating back 30 years -- seven accidents, four speeding tickets, two citations for running a red light or a stop sign, one for driving without a license or registration in the vehicle, and one for driving without wearing a seat belt.

Only in Massachusetts, one might say, would such an individual, Sheila Burgess, be hired as the $87,000-a-year director of the Massachusetts Highway Safety Commission.

Burgess' consulting company SHB Consulting-Mass Strategy Group -- which she operated with her sister for 20 years -- had advised and helped raise funds for numerous Democratic politicians -- among them Sen. John Kerry, Lt. Gov. Timothy "Crash" Murray, U.S. Rep. J. Joseph Moakley (who died in 2001), and U.S. Rep. James McGovern.

It was McGovern who recommended her for an unspecified position in the Patrick administration. For his part, Murray claimed not to know Burgess but did recall her sister and business partner, Coleen, from the time their company advised him during his successful campaigns for mayor of Worcester nearly 10 years ago.

This outrage is an example of what drives voters crazy about Beacon Hill. But there's more to this sorry tale.

On Aug. 24, Burgess, 48, damaged her state-owned vehicle by plowing into a boulder at the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton during the middle of a work day, suffering a head injury. According to the Boston Globe, which exposed Burgess's driving history last Sunday, the evidence is not clear on whether she had been texting on her state-issued smartphone. But she had sent 545 texts during the month of August.

She claimed she swerved into the woods to avoid an oncoming vehicle, according to State Police, and was not ticketed. No investigation into the accident was conducted.

Her job description, by the way, was to improve motorist safety by promoting good driving practices through public campaigns on the risks of speeding, driving while impaired, failure to wear a seat belt and texting while in motion. Burgess and her six-person staff doled out more than $2 million a year in grants to state and local police departments for public awareness programs, including money to fund overtime for police, the Globe reported.

In 2007, Burgess was hired despite no experience in public safety, transportation or government work. McGovern now claims he was unaware of her dismal driving record. But a more clear-cut example of political patronage -- payback for favors or fundraising -- is difficult to imagine.

But, let the record show, Lt. Gov. Murray -- who crashed his own state-owned vehicle under still-mysterious circumstances just over a year ago near Worcester -- had urged the hiring of Matthew McLaughlin for a $60,000-a-year post on a state board that hears appeals from drivers who have lost their licenses because of drunken driving convictions.

Turned out McLaughlin had a suspended license for refusing to take a breathalyzer test as well as six speeding citations. He was forced to resign. His father, Michael, apparently had helped raise funds for Murray before the senior McLaughlin was ousted as Chelsea Housing Authority executive director while investigators probed his alleged use of government money to pump his state salary up to $360,000 a year.

Incredibly, Murray is widely reported to be a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor to succeed Patrick after 2014.

As for Burgess, she saw the light, finally, and resigned as a state employee on Thanksgiving eve, three days after the Patrick administration removed her as highway safety director but offered her another role in the state Office of Public Safety and Security.

In a burst of candor, Burgess' boss, Public Safety and Security Director Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, issued a statement acknowledging that "she should not have been hired for the position and while she has been a solid and dependable employee, she recognized, and I agree, that she could not expect the public's trust, nor mine, if she were to continue in the position." Why then was Heffernan on board with the governor's plan to offer Burgess another job in her department?

Patrick, who has been an exemplary governor in many respects, issued a statement praising his staff, but conceding that "we don't always get it right. And when we don't, we fix it."

Fair enough, but why was he willing to let Burgess stay on in state government? Furthermore, the Patrick administration has pointed out that Burgess finally resigned of her own accord, as if to make it clear she was not forced to leave.

There's no doubt that a long-standing "friends and favors" culture in state government continues to run rampant during the Patrick administration. Those of us who have supported and admired the governor have good reason to be deeply dismayed. The odiferous patronage system needs to be torn asunder and disposed of, once and for all.

It's not good enough for Patrick to label Burgess's hiring as a "serious screw-up." It's beyond high time for him to get out the broom and lead a drive to sweep Beacon Hill clean of dirty political givebacks, special favors and calumnies that breed cynicism and fury among voters of all political stripes.

Clarence Fanto is an Eagle staffer. He can be contacted by email at or on Twitter at @BE_cfanto.


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