Joan Vennochi

Walsh isn't the real problem

By Joan Vennochi
April 2, 2009
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NOW THAT we don't have Marian Walsh to kick around anymore, how about kicking around the larger issue of secretive state agencies stocked with richly paid executives who answer to practically no one?

Politically speaking, Walsh sleeps with the fishes. After two tumultuous weeks, the state senator from West Roxbury abandoned her appointment to what was originally a $175,000 position at the Massachusetts Health and Educational Facilities Authority. Now, she must rebuild her reputation with constituents, as well as her relationship with Senate President Therese Murray, who supposedly wanted her out of the Senate after beating her for the top leadership post.

In backing Walsh, Governor Deval Patrick said the agency known as "HEFA" needed reform. But he never explained what was wrong with it, or why she is the best person to fix it. Absent evidence to the contrary, the public concluded this was simply a case of a governor slipping a political supporter into a make-believe job as assistant executive director. The position had gone unfilled for 12 years, undercutting the urgency argument.

From the start, it was the wrong way to address a legitimate concern - what to do about the patchwork of more than 50 quasi-independent agencies in Massachusetts that oversee funding and infrastructure.

How many does Massachusetts need? How much overlap is there? What's the correct balance between political independence and political accountability?

After Walsh gave up her appointment, the HEFA board released a statement describing itself as "a true model of efficiency" and "the largest issuer of tax-exempt bonds in the state and the sixth largest in the nation." Translation: HEFA is fine with the status quo.

Patrick wants to merge HEFA with the Massachusetts Development Finance Authority, another secretive body in the Bay State's quasi-public galaxy. The administration argues that they compete with each other for business. As a result, they offer discounted fees to institutions that benefit from their financing services. The administration estimates the competition adds up to lost revenue fees of about $6 million.

In a recent op-ed published on this page, Marvin Gordon, HEFA's vice chairman, and Robert J. Ciolek, a former executive director of the authority, argued against the merger. They described it as a mere power and revenue grab by Patrick.

Maybe it's a bad idea, maybe it isn't. Who knows for sure? A public debate on the merits would be welcome. At the moment, all that's clear is that each entity has a vested interest in maintaining its empire, the better to remain a comfortable repository for the politically connected of any given gubernatorial era.

Allen R. Larson, HEFA's current chairman, was appointed to the board in 2002 and served on it during the Romney years. Larson, who took over as chairman during Patrick's term, is married to Gloria Larson, president of Bentley University and a one-time Republican who switched her party affiliation to unenrolled when she backed Patrick.

Benson Caswell, HEFA's current executive director, is another holdover from the Romney administration. His base salary is $225,000 a year. Additional benefits, approved by the HEFA board, include a car allowance, free health club membership, T pass, cellphone, and parking spot. If he is terminated, he qualifies for a nearly $500,000 severance package. Caswell oversees 16 full-time employees, who out-source all the actual bond work.

Caswell's salary is not a public appropriation; it comes out of transactional fees generated by HEFA. But that doesn't eliminate questions about the Bay State's plethora of quasi-public agencies, and the wide range of compensation from one to another.

Patrick is trying to gain control of agencies like HEFA. If his efforts are painted as control for the sake of patronage versus control for the sake of reform, he loses a big political battle.

So far, he's losing the political battle. He needs charts, graphs, and an overarching narrative to explain what he's trying to accomplish and why the public should support him after the Walsh debacle.

Walsh is right about one thing. The ill-fated plan to send her to political nirvana - a high-paying post at a quasi-independent state agency - diverted attention from the real issue: How much political nirvana is too much for Massachusetts?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

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