As Peter Blute returns to politics, Gidget talks about that fateful day 13 years ago aboard the Nauticus that scuttled his tenure as head of Massport
Peter Blute at Christopher Columbus park.
The story was tailor-made for a tabloid: A booze cruise on Boston Harbor skippered by the head of Massport; a fun-loving crew of hangers-on, including lobbyists and a woman named Gidget, who struck a “Girls Gone Wild” pose for a photographer as the boat pulled into dock.
The Boston Herald story on that sunny day in August 1999 is legend. The article, and especially the Herald’s accompanying picture of a bare-breasted woman—a black strip inserted by the newspaper across her chest—were so devastating that Massport Director Peter Blute stepped down the very next day. Only now, nearly 13 years later, is Blute making a tentative return to politics serving as the deputy chairman of the state Republican Party.
Over the years, rumors have persisted that there was more to the story than what the Herald reported. Blute insists he was set up. There was talk of a second non-Herald photographer, a grand jury investigation, and rumors of a conspiracy by Blute’s enemies to bring him down.
Churchill was 34 at the time. Her lawyer says it was a spontaneous decision to pull up her tank top and expose her breasts. She was chatting with people on the boat, most of whom she had never met before, when one of them mentioned that a photographer was taking pictures of them. The attorney says Churchill had never exposed herself before, but decided at that moment to turn toward the camera and flash. “It just happened,” says her lawyer, who adds that Churchill told the same story to a grand jury.
Blute doesn’t buy it. Noting that Churchill used to work as a stunt actress in films, Blute thinks she was in on what he believes was a conspiracy against him.
“She was a stunt actress pulling a stunt,” he says. “Without the breasts, this is a one-day story.”
About a month before the infamous cruise, Michael Taylor, a private security consultant with a checkered past, walked over to the desk of one of his investigators in Boston and handed him a Post-it note with the words “Peter Blute” written on it, according to a source with knowledge of the investigator’s testimony before the federal grand jury. The investigator was working for Taylor’s firm, American International Security of Boston, and was told to find out everything he could about the Massport boss and former Republican congressman, but given no explanation why.
A few weeks later, the source says the investigator was given the name and registration number of the Nauticus and told to find a comparable boat that could keep pace with the yacht. The source says the investigator was told the date of the cruise and ordered to take pictures “of everybody coming off board.”
Blute says the idea for the booze cruise came originally from George Cashman, who at the time was president of Teamsters Local 25 and a member of the Massport board. It was the second try at a harbor cruise; one had been scheduled a month earlier but was canceled. Interviews with those familiar with the timing indicate the first scheduled cruise was around the time Taylor first asked his investigator to gather information on Blute.
“I saw it as an opportunity to placate one of my board members, who was my boss,” Blute says. “When your boss asks you to do something, you do it.”
But Blute haltingly admits he wasn’t averse to taking a summer cruise around Boston Harbor on a work day with a cooler of champagne and beer aboard. “Let me be clear,” he says. “I wasn’t not for it.”
On the morning of the cruise, Cashman begged out, saying he had to attend to some union business on Cape Cod, Blute says.
That same morning, Churchill’s lawyer says she was working at the now-defunct Chancellor Transportation Inc. in Boston, a company owned by her father that was trying to land a consulting contract with Massport. Her father was a neighbor of Tennant’s in Swampscott, which may explain why the firm received an invitation to the booze cruise.
According to Churchill’s lawyer, her immediate boss at the company was planning to go on the cruise but couldn’t make it, so he asked Churchill to stand in for him. Churchill’s lawyer says she went with David McCool, a lobbyist and minor political operative who had been doing work for Cashman’s Local 25. The lawyer says McCool just happened to be in Chancellor’s office that morning, adding that his client did not know who invited either her boss or McCool on the cruise.
Boarding the Nauticus at Commercial Wharf, Blute says he recognized Churchill. He says he saw her with McCool about a week earlier at a Cellucci fundraiser organized by Cashman. Churchill’s lawyer confirms she was at the fundraiser with McCool, but adds that she barely knew him. “They weren’t dating or anything like that,” he says.
Blute says he did not know and does not remember others on board, saying Tennant and Cashman invited most of them. Churchill’s attorney says she knew no one except McCool.
As the Nauticus prepared to shove off, according to the source familiar with the testimony of Taylor’s investigator, another similar-size boat carrying three men, two who appeared to be fishermen plus a boat captain, chugged out of the Commercial Wharf area. The source says the two “fishermen” were employees of Taylor and their gear included still and video cameras to record the Nauticus on its voyage.
The Nauticus, scene of the booze cruise.
Someone tipped off the Herald about the cruise and the newspaper dispatched several reporters and photographers to follow the boat. The group included political editor Joe Sciacca, now the paper’s chief editor, political reporter Joe Battenfeld, investigative reporter Jack Meyers, and staff photographer Matt Stone.
The Nauticus toured the harbor, making its way to a restaurant called Tavern on the Water in Charlestown, where Tennant’s friend, Maureen Stemberg, the ex-wife of Staples founder Tom Stemberg, was lunching with friends. Tennant invited her on board for the remainder of the trip.
As the boat continued around the harbor on the last leg of what was getting to be a six-hour ride, Blute says people on the Nauticus became aware that another boat was following them. Worried about possible media coverage, Blute went below and called his Massport communications director, Jeremy Crockford, to do “damage control.”
As the Nauticus began its return just outside Commercial Wharf, Churchill says some of the people on board noticed a photographer taking pictures of them. Her lawyer says she decided to “give them something to snap” and pulled up her shirt, which became the defining moment of the trip.
Blute says he heard a ruckus on deck and, when he came up, asked what had happened. “A boat went by with all kinds of photographers and all of a sudden she gets up and does this,” Blute says, pretending to lift his shirt over his head. “They told me what had happened and I said, ‘Oh, [expletive].’”
After the boat docked, Blute, clad in nylon shorts, short-sleeved crew shirt, and sneakers, commandeered a couple tables at Joe’s American Bar & Grill for the cruise guests. Churchill’s lawyer says she didn’t join them and took off. It was the last time she ever saw Blute, her lawyer says.
Two sets of pictures
As the group was drinking and eating, the Herald reporters and photographers raced back to the newspaper to prepare their story. The source familiar with the Taylor investigator’s grand jury testimony says the investigator took his film of the booze cruise to a one-hour developing store in Downtown Crossing and then returned to Taylor’s State Street office with double prints. A short while later, the source says, a man who the investigator recognized as a driver for Cashman from Local 25 arrived and went into Taylor’s office and then left with the envelope containing the photos.
The Herald’s next-day story included a number of pictures taken by staff photographer Stone, but a picture that accompanied a story later in the week carried the credit line of “Special to the Herald,” which is used to designate photos from freelance photographers. There was no name in the credit line, but the source says the picture was taken by the Taylor investigator.
Blute resigned the next day, saying he did not want to become a distraction to Massport or the governor, although he insists now he could have weathered the storm.
He says he thought right away he was set up “but I didn’t know who.” He says his suspicions were confirmed several years later by officials from the federal Department of Labor who were investigating Cashman for defrauding the Teamsters health and pension fund. Cashman was also reportedly being investigated for allegations that he and other Teamster members were shaking down movie producers for jobs, guaranteed pay, and side contracts.
Blute says the federal investigators questioned him extensively about the circumstances surrounding the booze cruise. He also testified in 2002 before a federal grand jury in Worcester.
Churchill was also called before the grand jury. Her attorney says she was asked about possible links between her and Cashman and Taylor. The attorney says Churchill told him the federal prosecutor “got mad” when she denied she was part of any plot.
The grand jury eventually indicted Cashman for pension fraud, but there were no charges related to the booze cruise. Cashman later pleaded guilty and served 34 months in jail.
Blute says he was told that no charges were filed in connection with the booze cruise because the prosecutor agreed not to in order to secure the cooperation of some witnesses against Cashman. Cashman and Taylor did not return repeated phone calls. Federal prosecutor Fred Wyshak declined to comment.
Thirteen years later, the booze cruise remains a mystery. Was it just a case of politicians partying on the public dime, or was something else going on? Cashman helped organize the booze cruise and had ties to Taylor, but why would he want to hurt Blute?
Churchill’s story that she was just along for the ride is hard to believe, but there is no clear link between Cashman and Churchill or Taylor and Churchill. Cashman’s Local 25 worked with movie productions in Boston, and Churchill appeared as a stunt woman in two Boston-based movies, The Proposition and Celtic Pride. Both of those movies were shot a couple years before the booze cruise and Churchill’s attorney says she didn’t know Cashman or Taylor.
Taylor is at the center of the mystery. Blute says Taylor may have wanted to hurt him. Taylor had sought a half-million dollar contract for security consulting at Massport, a contract Blute says was aggressively championed by Cashman, but Blute says he refused to hire him because of his controversial past.
Taylor, a former consultant for the CIA and an occasional expert who appears on cable news networks talking about security, was the focus of a Boston Phoenix article in 1996 entitled “The Untouchable.” The story depicted a number of times Taylor was given a pass on possible criminal violations allegedly because of his ties to government agencies.
In 1998, one year before the booze cruise, Taylor was arrested and charged with intercepting phone calls and planting marijuana in the car of a woman whom he had investigated years earlier on behalf of her estranged husband, a client of Taylor’s. The man wanted custody of their children and police were notified there was marijuana in her car, which would have harmed her efforts in court to retain custody. An investigation found Taylor complicit, though the charges were later reduced to misdemeanor possession.
As a Herald reporter working on the story of the federal investigation of the Teamsters and Cashman, I learned of the grand jury in 2002 and I received information that investigators and prosecutors were looking into the involvement of Taylor and Cashman with the booze cruise. The name of disgraced FBI agent John Connolly, who was a friend and employee of Taylor’s, also popped up in the investigation. Sources said Connolly was suspected of trying to sidetrack the investigation of Cashman and Taylor because of his connections to a low-level snitch who falsely accused two of the federal investigators working on the case of accepting bribes. The investigators were pulled off the case for several months until they could clear themselves.
George Regan, the public relations honcho who back then was a spokesman for both Taylor and Cashman, denied either was involved with the booze cruise. Regan, who did not return a call for this article, scoffed at the suggestion there was a set-up. He said at the time it sounded more like a Hollywood storyline made up by somebody “who watched too many movies.”
The Herald showed little interest in the conspiracy story even though editors were aware there was a second photographer taking pictures that day. The Herald only ran a story about the Connolly and Taylor connections with minimal references to the booze cruise after Boston Globe columnist Steve Bailey wrote a couple of columns speculating about a possible Blute setup. The Herald’s editors said that running a story about Blute being setup could denigrate the work the paper had done in exposing Blute and possibly reveal a source.
Churchill’s attorney says she isn’t proud of what she did that day, but he insists she was not part of any plot to bring Blute down. The lawyer says she does not feel responsible for Blute’s ouster nor would she apologize if she ever met him again.
Blute is now working as a consultant for education software provider Jenzabar, which is owned by state GOP chairman Robert Maginn. Blute’s deputy chairman position with the Republican Party is unpaid. He admits the episode caused a “rough patch” in his marriage but he and his wife stayed together and they celebrated their 25th anniversary last year.
As he sits inside Joe’s American Bar & Grill on the waterfront on a sunny March day, with the Nauticus tied up nearby under white shrink wrap—the same table he sat at on that fateful day in 1999—Blute says his focus now is on getting more Massachusetts Republicans elected to the State House and Congress. But he looks and acts like a man ready to return to the ballot himself.“I wouldn’t preclude it,” he says. Reminded that the episode with Churchill and the Nauticus is never far from people’s minds when they think of him, Blute says he doesn’t see it as a problem. “I don’t think it’s something I couldn’t overcome.”
Blute, who lost his congressional seat in the 1996 election but had been harboring ambitions of a comeback and possible run for governor at the time of the cruise, says the whole incident changed his life. “It appeared to be a political assassination, and politically, it was successful,” he says. “I would have been a good candidate for governor.”