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A usable past

In 1980, the Ward Commission exposed a culture of corruption and brought about far-reaching reforms. Can its lessons

TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO a group of seven citizens was assembled and asked to explain how so much could go wrong with public construction projects in Massachusetts-and to recommend solutions. Led by John William Ward, the former president of Amherst College, the commission produced a document so extensive and meticulous, so full of measured outrage, that it did what few at the time expected. It changed things.

After an inquiry lasting two years, eight months, and 18 days, the Ward Commission's final report-weighing in at more than 2,000 pages-landed with a thud in the State House on the last day of 1980. ``We have learned that corruption is a way of life in Massachusetts," it declared. It was news many in the Legislature were not initially moved by. But the report generated intense media coverage. Some of its findings led to criminal prosecutions. And most of its recommended reforms eventually became law.

The Ward Commission led to the creation of the first-in-the-nation state inspector general's office. It led to strict laws regulating the awarding of state building contracts, which previously had gone mostly to companies that funneled contributions to the governor's campaign coffers. By the 1990s, the Ward Commission reforms were sometimes referred to as ``sacred cows" by those who believed Massachusetts construction had become over-regulated. In recent annual budget recommendations, Governor Mitt Romney's office even proposed abolishing the inspector general's office.

But when water started leaking into the newly constructed Central Artery tunnels a couple of years ago, some lawmakers began to suggest it might be time for ``another Ward Commission"-a special independent body to look into what went wrong with the massive Big Dig project. Now, with the death of Milena Del Valle in the I-90 connector tunnel, at least one bill is already in the works to create a special panel modeled on the Ward Commission.

``I think it would be a tremendous idea for an independent body to go back and review the history of the Big Dig and really tell the story of what happened here," says current Inspector General Gregory Sullivan. ``A lot of facts would come out that would really amaze people."

``The system failed here," says former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who also supports the idea. ``I think we do need to have some kind of independent review of how we got here and why we got here."

Blue-ribbon commissions come and go, but as attention turns to the Big Dig investigations, it's worth asking what made the special commission led by John William Ward so special. Could something similar work today?

. . .

The Ward Commissionwas created in the wake of the 1977 scandal surrounding the construction of the University of Massachusetts Boston campus. Two state senators were convicted on extortion charges for accepting payoffs from a New York construction management company, McKee-Berger-Mansueto (MBM), involved with the project. When investigators found not just payoffs to state officials, but inferior workmanship on new buildings, Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti and state representatives Phillip Johnston and Andrew Card pushed for a commission to look into the MBM scandal and all other state and county construction projects through the 1960s and 1970s.

``There was a real crisis of confidence in the integrity of the public construction process," recalls Nick Littlefield, who left a position teaching criminal investigation at Harvard Law School to become chief counsel of the Ward Commission. ``What we showed was that corruption wasn't a victimless crime," Littlefield says. ``It cost the state a fortune."

Thomas E. Dwyer, founder of the Boston firm Dwyer & Collora, who worked as a deputy counsel for the commission, recalls that Massachusetts had tried special commissions before to investigate crimes, but ``the only one that survived with its reputation intact is the Ward Commission." He credits Ward's independence and ``great moral compass" with making it work.

Littlefield says Ward, who was appointed by then-Governor Michael Dukakis, was ``a brilliant choice" to run the inquiry. He had strong Boston roots-he was, in one friend's words, a ``naturally ebullient Irishman"-and he brought an accomplished historian's intellect to the job, as well as a reputation as a maverick.

To read the Ward Commission's report now is to be transported back to a time when men called ``Sonny" and ``Toots" were the people to see if you wanted to get something built in Massachusetts. The report's opening narrative does not mince words. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations during the 1960s and 1970s, ``the way to get architectural contracts was to buy them." The report discusses evidence of bribery, extortion, and a ``primitive" system of managing the state's business. It details the way contractors took ``low roads to high living." In short, the report said, ``The state was for sale."

The report noted that the Commonwealth appropriated more than $17 billion for construction projects between 1968 and 1978, and more than $7 billion had been poorly spent. A study conducted with the Harvard School of Design produced results that ``stagger belief," Ward wrote. In a sample of state buildings, 76 percent were found to have had ``significant defects."

By the early 1980s, Littlefield recalls, anticorruption campaigns were putting new leaders in elected office: Dukakis retook the governor's seat, Scott Harshbarger became Middlesex district attorney, and Raymond Flynn replaced Kevin White as mayor of Boston. Meanwhile, William Weld launched aggressive prosecutions as US attorney in Boston. The old styles of payoffs and influence peddling receded.

According to Dwyer, Ward viewed his work on the commission ``as his greatest accomplishment." Yet, in a sad personal twist to the story, when Ward's work was done there seemed to be no place for him in Boston. He moved to New York and struggled privately with depression. In 1985 he was found dead with a suicide note by his side.

. . .

The Ward Commission was given real power-to subpoena records, to grant immunity to witnesses, to hold public and private hearings, and to refer cases for prosecution. Telling the straight story about how things went wrong was only the beginning. ``The main point was to get laws changed," says Littlefield, now a partner at Foley Hoag who takes no position on the question of a new commission.

The commission did that-and yet given the decade-long record of the Big Dig, it is apparent that one of the Ward Commission's most idealistic stated goals was not achieved: ``to build the capacity for self-correction into government itself." The commission may have helped eliminate old-fashioned greasy-palm corruption, but it did not put in place a system of effective government oversight for an undertaking as vast and complex as the Central Artery project.

The Ward Commission report held out the hope that its reforms would ``create a future in the political life of Massachusetts where there would never again be the need for a special commission to investigate corruption and maladministration." Ward saw the need for a commission as proof that the normal processes of government had broken down. What we learn from the investigations in the coming months may clarify whether we have arrived at such a point again.

Dave Denison, a freelance writer living in Arlington, writes frequently for Ideas.

 A usable past (By Dave Denison, Boston Globe, 7/23/06)
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