THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Essex official, ex-legislator, moonlights as a lobbyist

By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / July 28, 2009

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Every few months, Timothy A. Bassett, head of the Essex Regional Retirement Board, sends to public employees and retirees within his system a taxpayer-financed newsletter, peppered with flattering pictures of state lawmakers. “Our friends on Beacon Hill,’’ he calls them.

If lawmakers gain some political benefit from Bassett’s kind words, he may gain even more.

Maintaining the favor of area lawmakers is integral to Bassett’s private lobbying career, which he has built successfully despite his full-time government job. In his private role, Bassett, a former state representative, trades on his access at the State House. Since 2001, he has earned, with his partners, more than $580,000 in lobbying fees from an assortment of public and private clients, state records show.

“He really knew his way around the State House,’’ said Paul Hannon, a union official who hired Bassett to represent a group of gas workers in 2003. “Everyone knew him.’’

The unusual arrangement, a full-time public employee moonlighting as a private lobbyist, raises several ethical and legal questions, specialists say.

In some cases, it has worked out like this: Bassett, a public official, was paid to lobby public officials on behalf of other public officials.

State ethics laws prohibit a public official from using an official position “to secure for himself unwarranted privileges.’’ In addition to using the pension board newsletter to promote lawmakers he relies on in his private lobbying business, Bassett has also used it to trumpet his lobbying prowess.

In addition, ethics laws prohibit a public employee from conducting private business on public time. Even using an office fax machine for private business could trigger an ethics investigation, according to the statute and interviews with lawyers who specialize in ethics laws.

Bassett, according to records and interviews, has on occasion worked on behalf of private clients during the day. In April 2005, for example, he met with the town manager of Shirley, a town more than an hour away from Bassett’s Danvers office, to lobby for a police union on a pension bill. Whether Bassett used a vacation day could not be determined; he declined to release his payroll records. He also used his Retirement Board office fax machine to lobby on the bill, records show.

E. George Daher, a former chief judge and former chairman of the State Ethics Commission, said Bassett’s lobbying work could be problematic.

“I’m shocked by this,’’ Daher said. “Whether it’s legal or not, it’s certainly disturbing and merits review.’’

Bassett declined repeated requests for interviews. He did not respond to written questions, nor did he provide copies of requested documents.

His lobbying partner since 2003, Peter C. McCarthy, said in an interview that Bassett does mostly research and writing, rather than personally lobbying legislators.

“Bassett works for me,’’ McCarthy said. “He writes all the memos, creating the arguments. He’s very good at the details.’’

The Globe reported this spring how Bassett, a longtime Beacon Hill insider, has artfully mined his political connections to enhance his pension. Among the state’s 646 registered lobbyists, Bassett, 61, stands out because he also holds a full-time position on a public payroll.

Records show that Bassett and his partners have represented, among other clients, the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, a statewide police union; the New England Gas Workers Alliance; a homeless shelter for veterans; and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

In 2004, Bassett’s firm was paid $18,000 to help the Salem Retirement Board gain legislative permission to purchase a condominium to house the board’s offices. But several lawmakers - including Fred Berry, the Senate majority leader, who represents Salem - questioned why such lobbying was necessary for such a routine measure.

“There was no need for the Salem Retirement Board paying for a lobbyist,’’ Berry said. “The board is a public agency. It’s part of my job as the state senator from that district to look after them.’’

Indeed, the very same year, the Plymouth Retirement Board wanted to get a similar measure passed, but it saw no reason to pay a lobbyist.

When asked about the hiring of Bassett, John H. Burke Jr., a member of the Salem Retirement Board, said, “I don’t want to talk to you about it.’’

In 2004, in the Shirley case, Bassett was working for the Massachusetts Coalition of Police to gain local approval and then state approval to award a 100 percent disability pension to a police officer wounded in the line of duty. The coalition paid Bassett and his partner more than $26,000 that year, state records show.

Bassett was registered as a lobbyist in 1995 and 1996 and then not again until 2001.

But in 1998, according to state Representative Harriett L. Stanley, a Democrat from Newbury, Bassett appeared during the day in her State House office on behalf of the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency. Stanley, then a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committtee, said that Bassett, who at the time was the elected treasurer of Essex County, was advocating for MassDevelopment’s budget.

“Bassett had a full-time public job, and I thought it was inappropriate for him to be in my office representing another public agency,’’ said Stanley, who complained about the incident to economic development officials.

At the time, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who was close to Bassett, chastised her for complaining about Bassett’s lobbying activities, Stanley said. “He told me that was not the way we treat former House members around here.’’

“I have no memory of any such exchange,’’ Finneran said in an e-mail. “It sounds highly unlikely.’’

Bassett’s private and public interests have at times overlapped. Bassett, for example, was paid $14,400 by the Massachusetts Coalition of Police in 2008 to push a legislative measure that would have allowed police officers in some instances to retire earlier with larger pensions.

But Bassett, who earns $137,000 a year, is already paid in part to do similar work on behalf of the thousands of police officers and other employees within the Essex County regional retirement system, some of whom would qualify for the enhanced pension benefit that the coalition paid him to push on Beacon Hill.

Bassett’s pension board newsletter, called “The Navigator,’’ at times touts lawmakers who are key to his private business. The most recent edition features a front-page photo of state Senator Thomas M. McGee, Democrat of Lynn. That picture is one of three of McGee published in the eight-page newsletter.

McGee figures in Bassett’s private lobbying business. Of the seven bills filed on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police this year, McGee sponsored three of them.

McGee said he knew Bassett did some lobbying, but thought it was minimal.

“It’s surprising to me that he was making that kind of money and doing substantial work while having a full-time job at the retirement board,’’ he said.

Bassett’s lobbying efforts, though, have won praise from clients. “I know there was a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work . . . to get this job done,’’ Marcia Pelletier, executive director of the Salem Retirement Board, wrote to Bassett in 2004, after he helped them win the ability to buy their condo. “From the outside, it looks like it was a smooth process. But we do understand how hard it is.’’

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.