The crimes and punishment of Michael McLaughlin

Apparently greed is good

IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE the sort of rebel who commits multiple felonies, be a rebel with a pol to trade. That’s the lesson of the deal Michael McLaughlin cut with the office of United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz on charges that he hid his inflated salary as head of the Chelsea Housing Authority from the federal government.  As the Boston Globe reported, so long as McLaughlin gives the feds what they want he faces “little, if any” prison time.

When asked by US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock what McLaughlin’s motive was, the assistant US attorney replied, “It was money.” Contrast the outcome here with what the late Aaron Swartz was facing from Ortiz’s office: six months in prison for making public academic papers. His motive was free access to information, not to score pelf. Apparently greed is good. Alas, Swartz had no pol to trade.

So what is McLaughlin offering on Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and other politicians that has so caused prosecutors to swoon? A Chuck Turner-style “preacher’s handshake”? A little something to fill out the undergarments, à la Dianne Wilkerson? The without-a-doubt-federal-case score of a Sal DiMasi?

No, no, and no.

It appears that McLaughlin’s act of contrition will be to sing about campaign money he allegedly raised illegally for Murray and others. The campaign finance account is the new brown paper bag of politics.

So far as I can tell from media accounts, McLaughlin has engaged in three patterns of conduct that may be criminal. First, he hid his huge salary as head of the Chelsea Housing Authority from the federal government. Second, though barred from most political activity as a federal employee, McLaughlin was so devoted to democracy that he put the arm on authority employees and political friends to raise money for Murray, some of it in cash. Third, $7 million in federal grants seems to have been diverted to the salaries and creature comforts of McLaughlin and his cronies. The clients of the Chelsea Housing Authority are poor and elderly. That money was intended to repair their leaky toilets and to plaster crumbling walls and ceilings, not provide McLaughlin money to tip the cabana boy in some Florida resort.

Bad, bad, and very bad.

But so far the first two have gotten the most attention and I am hoping that the continuing federal investigation is focusing on the third. Lying about your salary and greasing a friendly pol’s campaign account are against the law; you can look it up in a statute book. But stealing from the poor is a sin and that is what McLaughlin did.

It would be comforting to think that McLaughlin is the lone sinner. But in a story on Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to reform state housing authorities, the Globe reported that “several other [housing] directors were forced to resign amid allegations of abuse of their positions.” Or we could turn to the Globe’s story on John Barranco, who state investigators allege “took a Merrimack Valley agency designed to serve children with disabilities and turned it into a personal treasure chest, siphoning off enough to become the owner of four homes, including a Florida getaway and a spread on Lake Winnipesaukee that he paid for with more than $1 million in cash.”

Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, Tim Murray was “shocked, shocked” to find out what McLaughlin had been doing under his nose. That seems to be the case with some portion of the state’s Democratic and Republican establishment, who never seem to notice when the McLaughlins and Barrancos of the world party off the resources intended for those in need. Our commitment, I thought, was to provide assistance to the poor and vulnerable, not steal from them.

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
In accepting McLaughlin’s plea, the Globe reported, Judge Woodlock said this: “I am not bound by the plea agreement. I am going to make my own decision.”

You go, Judge Woodlock. You go.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.