The job perk that comes with a steering wheel is alive and well for the state’s district attorneys.
While a slew of state officials have lost their use of take-home cars in recent years, top prosecutors across Massachusetts continue to have access to vehicles for their professional and personal use, having spent more than $100,000 on leasing since the start of 2019. This cost doesn't include all fees, nor does it include other cars leased by the offices for other employees. In any one month, six current vehicle leases cost the state $3,534.41.
It is a legal and long-standing practice.
And yet, it exists outside the state’s procurement system, runs counter to reforms within the state’s executive branch and draws criticism from fiscal watchdogs. District attorneys are constitutional officers of the executive branch, like the governor and the attorney general, but are not controlled by it. It would take an act of the Legislature to change this.
Taxpayer-funded car leasing came to light in the Berkshires last year, when a Pittsfield Police officer stopped Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington on a routine matter and reported she was driving a rental car.
It was a leased car.
Like her predecessors, Harrington uses a vehicle — in her case, it's a 2019 Ford Edge — provided for her use. Former Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless and his successor, Paul Caccaviello, also drove leased cars. Since 2012, the Berkshire DA’s office has paid Enterprise Fleet Management $67,800, according to records from the state comptroller’s office.
An Eagle Investigations inquiry finds that six out of the state’s 11 district attorneys’ offices lease vehicles that their top elected official can use for work and, sometimes, for their personal lives. The practice provides additional compensation on top of their approximately $191,000 annual salaries.
People familiar with car leasing by district attorneys defend it as a practical way to avoid costs associated with aging vehicles, as well as to simplify the financial housekeeping involved in calculating mileage for business use reimbursement while using a personal car — the way ordinary citizens do when traveling for work. There also might be personal safety reasons for leasing, some suggested.
District attorneys can be called out at all times of day, supporters of lease programs say, and often must travel long distances to reach crime scenes in the regions they represent. For Harrington, that is all 32 cities and towns in Berkshire County.
Still, two of the district attorneys’ offices contacted by The Eagle say they gave up leasing cars, after determining that it saves money for their office to buy a vehicle for the top prosecutor’s use. Other DAs’ offices say they lowered their monthly lease payments by switching car companies when a lease was up. And some offices reported that they shop around to find the best deal.
The monthly lease payments vary, depending on the company, how the contracts are drawn up and whether they include a number of add-ons, like insurance or extra mileage. For that reason, it isn’t possible to do a simple side-by-side comparison to determine which offices drive a hard bargain — and which do not.
Most of the district attorneys' offices that lease do so from St. Louis-based Enterprise Fleet Management, in a program called "equity leasing." That program returns money to the offices either to roll into a new lease or put into their general funds.
"Just like your mortgage," said Dain Giesie, the company's assistant vice president for business development told The Eagle.
Two accountants told The Eagle that this type of leasing is better than traditional leasing, since leasing cars always costs more than buying, in their view. The bite on taxpayers, they note, depends even more on how much the DAs pay back to the state for their personal use of the vehicles.
On their own
How the offices go about selecting cars is entirely up to them. The offices are not subject to the rules for car use that Gov. Charlie Baker instituted in 2016, and do not participate in the leasing program run by the Office of Vehicle Management, an agency that procures cars and leases them to state agencies and departments.
Invoices from the DAs’ offices, obtained by The Eagle through public records requests, show monthly lease payments over the past one to two years ranging from $313.88 to $865.96, with some of those varying from year to year. Most of the vehicles are leased from Enterprise Fleet Management, which provides more than 500,000 cars to business customers across the U.S., including governments.
While routine, the leasing, because of the district attorneys' position within the executive branch, is not under state oversight and hasn’t been audited to ensure that taxpayers are getting the best value.
The perk isn’t entirely free: Federal law requires people who receive compensation in the form of free use of a vehicle to pay income taxes on an amount that is based on the value of the car that factors in the amount of personal use. The extent to which the DAs use the leased cars for personal travel isn't known.
Harrington’s 2019 Ford Edge costs the office $677.57 a month, not including excise taxes, finance charges and other fees, as well as fuel and, possibly, insurance. Harrington’s office had, as of June, paid more than $22,000 in monthly payments and other fees to Enterprise since the lease began in July 2019. She took office in January 2019.
The office declined to respond to questions about its use of a leased vehicle.
‘Get the toys’
Government watchdogs wonder why officials with six-figure salaries are given a car when they can afford to buy or lease their own. And they suspect that the problem is widespread in government. In the case of district attorneys, it goes unexamined.
“It’s not a very good use of taxpayer money,” said Paul Diego Craney, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a taxpayer advocacy nonprofit. “Our elected officials are finding ways to cleverly get the toys they want instead of following the state procurement rules.”
The state auditor has not probed vehicle leasing by district attorneys but doesn’t rule out a review by the office at some point.
“Vehicle leasing by district attorney offices has not been within the scope of recent audits, although it could be at a later time,” Auditor Suzanne M. Bump said in an emailed statement.
Bump said her office has, through the years, examined other aspects of DAs’ offices. The audits are required by the state and done every three to four years. Bump’s last audit of Harrington’s office came in 2018, and focused on the handling of asset forfeiture money.
Bill McNamara, the current state comptroller, declined to comment on the issue of car leasing by district attorneys.
“As independent agencies, they have significant autonomy on budget and spending decision-making,” a spokesperson for McNamara’s office said.
Parris Kyriakakis, the comptroller’s records access officer, said new financial measures are not yet in place that will provide greater control over various types of state spending.
Kyriakakis said the state might force more detailed lease reporting in the future.
McNamara’s predecessor, Thomas Shack, openly has been critical of how many state employees have had access to take-home cars.
“We owe it to the people of Massachusetts to examine and re-examine the use of vehicles by state employees,” Shack told The Boston Herald in 2018. The paper had reported that the chief of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, who was making $174,700 a year, was driving a leased Toyota Prius C III that cost the state $404.63 a month.
Cars in crosshairs
It wasn’t the first such criticism. Former Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration was assailed by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the Republican Party in 2008 for allowing 501 public employees to take home state-owned vehicles amid a billion-dollar state deficit. The administration defended the cars as bolstering public safety but said it would reexamine the policy.
In 2016, Baker pulled the car privilege from dozens of state workers and tightened up rules after another agency worker, with a six-figure salary, was found abusing the vehicle perk by using the car’s emergency flashers and sirens to get around Boston traffic.
A representative of Baker’s office told The Eagle that steps taken by the governor to rein in use of cars, spelled out in a Domicile Vehicle Policy bulletin issued in 2016, does not apply to constitutional officers within the executive branch.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, one of several DAs whose office dropped leasing in favor of buying a vehicle outright, found that to be a cheaper option. He said it is better to not be tied to the state for purchasing.
“[The state programs] are terribly inefficient and oftentimes end up costing the taxpayers far more money than if people like district attorneys do leasing and buying and everything for themselves,” said O’Keefe, who is president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.
Plymouth County DA Tim Cruz’s office began monthly payments for a Ford Explorer from Ford credit in 2016, at $623.57. The office stopped leasing cars after 2019, finding it more “fiscally prudent” to buy a vehicle, since the DA travels extensively, including to five courthouses spread out over five municipalities.
“Our district is comprised of 27 municipalities, over 600 square miles,” wrote Beth Stone, the Plymouth DA’s director of communications.