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Report says lobbyists muffled Big Dig criticism

Business group said to influence Kerry, others

A Harvard-affiliated academic institute studying the Big Dig has uncovered a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by a high-powered Boston business group that says it persuaded US Senator John F. Kerry to silence his criticisms of cost overruns and also planted an operative in the 1990 campaign of then-gubernatorial candidate John Silber.

 

A report prepared for the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government says the Artery Business Committee conducted a highly successful, hard-nosed lobbying campaign to keep the $14.6 billion project on track for more than a decade. The business group had its own interests to protect: Many of its members had downtown real estate and business holdings.

"ABC's leaders helped keep the project from becoming a campaign issue in several . . . state elections and they spearheaded two successful efforts to defeat anti-tolling measures that would have weakened the project's finances," concludes the report obtained by the Globe. The report is expected to be publicly released within a short time.

In one episode, the report says, ABC helped silence Kerry when he began to make the project an issue early in his 1996 reelection battle with then-governor William F. Weld. The senator was asking the US transportation secretary to look into reports the project was overbudget and behind schedule during Weld's governorship.

"ABC's leaders met privately with Kerry urging him not to discuss the project in the campaign . . ." the report states. "Kerry stopped raising the issue."

Kerry insists, through a spokesperson, that he did not back off because of pressure from ABC leaders, and says he in fact did make the project and its costs an issue frequently during the 1996 campaign. The Globe reported that he raised concerns about the cost and progress of the Big Dig in a 1995 letter to federal transportation officials, and again in an April 1996 debate with Weld.

Still, the study, through interviews with the leaders of the business group, offers a candid glimpse of maneuvering aimed at saving the controversial project and protecting its members' interests during the planning and construction of the country's biggest public works project.

Beginning as a small group in the late 1980s, ABC now has about 80 members and a $1 million budget. It members include a handful of developers and real estate magnates, bankers, lawyers, and utility executives, many of whom stood to gain from the success of the Big Dig.

"Effective leadership . . . requires a core group of people who not only mobilize significant institutional resources to achieve goals, but who also have the skills, networks, and, ultimately, the willingness to do that often-difficult and time-consuming work," the report says.

Richard Dimino, ABC's president, said in an interview with the Globe that the Rappaport Institute captured the role and accomplishments of the committee.

"We were in the trenches . . . to make the project viable," he said. "The ABC filled a serious void in the leadership of the business community. . . . We all stand by the report."

The report was a joint study that was researched and written for the Rappaport Institute by David Luberoff of Harvard's Taubman Center. The Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston is part of the Jerome Lyle Rappaport Charitable Foundation, established in 1997.

Among the leaders of ABC are Norman Leventhal, his son Alan Leventhal, and his son-in-law Edwin Sidman, all of whom have considerable clout with Democratic leaders. They are major fund-raisers for such figures as Kerry, Bill Clinton, and former governor Michael Dukakis. The Leventhal/Sidman clan operates the Beacon Companies, which owned several downtown projects, including Rowe's Wharf -- which faces the Central Artery. The elevated roadway is being demolished as part of the Big Dig.

Norman Leventhal is quoted in the report describing how he used his influence in 1990 with Dukakis to reign in the administration's secretary of enviromental affairs, John DeVillars, who was quoted in the Globe vowing to impose stringent enviromental guidelines for the Big Dig.

"I went to his house that night," Leventhal is quoted in the report, citing his shock at reading DeVillars's comments in the Sunday Globe. "He was alone, went to the kitchen, brings us drinks, we discuss it and he says he doesn't know what he can do about it."

Leventhal recalled that he urged Dukakis to fire DeVillars, and Dukakis responded: " `Norman, that could be the worst thing I could do. Let me handle it.' And he straightened it out."

The report claims that, after intense negotiations with the governor's senior advisers, DeVillars issued a ruling with language "much more temperate than his rhetoric had suggested it would be."

In an interview, DeVillars disputed the account, saying that his final environmental mitigation plans were substantially what he had originally proposed. He said he never felt pressure from Dukakis to soften them.

Reached this week, Leventhal said he has read a draft of the report and he feels the Rappaport Institute did a fine job. "I am satisfied with it," Leventhal said.

Dukakis did not return calls seeking comment on the report.

In another episode recounted in the report, ABC instructed its communications consultant, Mary Fifield, to play an active role in the campaign of 1990 gubernatorial candidate John Silber.

The aim, the report states, was to "ensure that they had access at the highest levels of his administration were he to win the general election."

Fifield told the Globe that the assertion that ABC leaders planted her in the Silber campaign was an "overstatement." She said Silber's campaign manager asked her to join the campaign and ABC encouraged her to take the position, but never told her of any motive.

ABC did not need to use a similar ploy with Silber's Republican opponent Weld, because one of its leaders, Boston lawyer Harold Hestnes, was Weld's former law partner at the firm Hale and Dorr and was close to the future governor. Weld was a strong backer of the project.

"There is nothing we worked harder at on the political scene than to keep gubernatorial candidates out of this," Hestnes is quoted. He claimed ABC got commitments from all the candidates in the Democratic primaries not to attack the project.

That effort also included getting James Rappaport, Kerry's 1990 Republican opponent, who had been attacking the project, to tone down his negative rhetoric about the Big Dig during that campaign. James Rappaport is the son of the man for whom the Rappaport institute is named.

In that same election, ABC members take credit for defeating a ballot question that would have derailed the project by removing much of its ability to hire engineering and other consultants.

"These efforts helped to produce a clean sweep for ABC on Election Day," the report concludes. "Weld was elected governor, Kerry defeated Rappaport, and the measure limiting the use of consultants was defeated."

The lobbying went beyond trying to influence Massachusetts political figures. Norman Leventhal recounts that, with a spending bill crucial to the Big Dig pending in Congress, the group invited then US House Speaker Tom Foley to Boston for a fund-raiser. Foley served as speaker from 1989 to 1994. The ABC group and its members raised $100,000 at a "big-time lunch," Leventhal is quoted.

"My son also arranged for Foley . . . [to] go to Filene's Basement for suits. In fact, they opened early for him . . .," Leventhal says. "You know these political things help. He was a great supporter."

Reached by telephone, Foley said he recalled coming to Boston for a fund-raiser, but said the contributions did not influence his support for the Big Dig. He supported the project, he said, because it was backed by former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.

ABC was not always able to control the political rhetoric. One Beacon Hill political figure who did not buckle to the group's requests was former state treasurer Joseph Malone, a Republican maverick who attacked the project as he challenged then-governor Paul Cellucci for the 1998 GOP gubernatorial nomination.

"When Bill Weld and John Kerry were running for the Senate, we got their word that they wouldn't bring up the Big Dig as an issue," Malone is quoted in an interview, contained in the report, after the cost overruns rocked the project in 2000. "They both stuck with that promise [and asked] `Joe, why don't you do the same thing?' I said you're in the wrong place if you think I'm going to let this boondoggle get further and further out of control."

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