Murray uses IG as ombudsman for Phoenix story
INTRO TEXT When the Boston Phoenix reported last year that state Sen. Therese Murray steered $11 million in state money to a crony who failed to deliver on his assignment to boost the number of foreign visitors to the Commonwealth, Murray did something unusual. She referred the matter to Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, asking him to play the role of a fact-finding ombudsman.
There might not have been a need for an ombudsman if Murray had just talked to the Phoenix. (She also declined to talk to CommonWealth for this story.) Nevertheless, the referral to the inspector general shows one way that state officials can deal with allegations of wasteful spending or wrongdoing raised by the press, the public, or other politicians.
The February 2007 Phoenix article was written by David S. Bernstein and carried the headline SHE WHO CONTROLS THE PURSE, with a subhead asking, “Terry Murray gave away $11 million of state money. Will anyone call her on it?”
The article alleged that Murray, who at the time was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and is now the Senate president, relentlessly pushed for international tourism promotion contracts to be awarded to William MacDougall, a former state tourism employee who was working as an independent contractor.
The New England Press Association gave Bernstein and the Phoenix a first-place award in the general news story category for alternative weeklies. NEPA stated that the Phoenix story “lays out a convincing case that a powerful state legislator handed an $11 million contract to a crony, and that the people of Massachusetts don’t have a lot to show for it.”
The inspector general’s 25-page report, released almost exactly one year after the Phoenix article appeared, offered a very different assessment. The report said there was no impropriety in the awarding of contracts to MacDougall or his expenditure of funds. It said the members of the state board resigned because they had been appointed improperly. Sullivan also said that none of the state tourism money went to state officials for trips and that international tourism went up, not down, under MacDougall.
Sullivan’s report prompted Murray to quip in a press release: “I didn’t know they gave press awards for fiction.”
There were two key factual errors in the Phoenix article. Bernstein reported that Murray took state-paid tourism junkets to Italy and Russia, yet she had never been to Italy and she paid for humanitarian trips to Russia with her own campaign funds. (The Phoenix printed a correction about the Italy trips shortly after the article appeared.)
The Phoenix also reported that overseas visits to Massachusetts declined under MacDougall. In fact, data released by the US Commerce Department in June 2007 indicated that foreign visitors to Massachusetts increased dramatically in 2006. The 27 percent annual jump was much bigger than any in other state or territory included in the agency’s survey.
Sullivan, in an interview, said Murray’s move to earmark money in the state budget for MacDougall has to be seen in the context of a fight with the administration of former governor Mitt Romney over the allocation of state funds to international tourism. Romney’s administration had previously cut funds for international tourism promotion over Murray’s objections and was refusing to award a $2 million contract the Legislature had authorized, according to Sullivan.The inspector general’s report says his office was able to document all of the tourism expenditures made by MacDougall, although there’s little detail on them. For example, there’s no breakdown of how $926,000 was spent by a public relations firm marketing Massachusetts in the United Kingdom.
Brenda Reed, executive director of the New England Press Association, said the inspector general’s ombudsman-like investigation of a press report was something she hadn’t seen in her 10 years at the association. She said said the association has no plans to revoke the Phoenix’s award. “We’re not pursuing it at this time,” she says.