Order to close office strands constituents

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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The secretary of the US Senate yesterday officially instructed aides to Edward M. Kennedy that they had to halt work on hundreds of requests from Massachusetts constituents and instead focus on shutting down the Senate office.

The order, which is mandated by law and was anticipated by Kennedy’s Senate aides, not only leaves state residents in the lurch when they are seeking help, but it adds a potential wrinkle to the push on Beacon Hill for an interim senator to sit until January, when a special election is scheduled to be held.

Although most of the debate about the interim measure has centered on helping Democrats in Washington secure a 60-vote majority for an expected vote on health care, the shutdown of Kennedy’s offices on Capitol Hill and around Massachusetts illustrates problems that hit closer to home. Massachusetts House and Senate lawmakers have scheduled hearings on the topic for next week, but it remains unclear whether the measure has the support from legislative leaders or rank-and-file members to pass, despite Governor Deval Patrick’s strong advocacy.

Kennedy staff members will stay on the payroll until Oct. 25, but all work is supposed to be centered on closing the office.

The move is tough to swallow for Kennedy’s staff, which is legendary for helping people cut through red tape to get recognition and various benefits from the famously thick bureaucracy of the federal government.

Phone messages are piling up and e-mails are going unreturned in Kennedy’s office, aides said, as all staff actions must now be coordinated with the Senate secretary. They’re no longer allowed to use Kennedy’s Senate letterhead; they await new stationery from the secretary of the Senate.

“It’s very painful because the people coming into our office, they literally cry on us and say, ‘We’re desperate and we need help; we need Senator Kennedy’s help,’ ’’ said one longtime Kennedy staff member, one of three aides who spoke with the Globe on the condition of anonymity to honor a longstanding policy of not speaking publicly about casework details. “It’s heartbreaking when we’ve never said no to someone before.’’

Constituent services can range from matters as routine as requesting an American flag or a tour of the US Capitol to those as weighty as help gaining citizenship for an immigrant or medical benefits for a veteran.

In one case, for example, a Salvadoran mother of a child being treated at Children’s Hospital in Boston is seeking help with a special immigration status so she can get a job to defray some of the medical costs. One of the child’s legs has been amputated. Kennedy’s staff is now unable to work on the case.

“Those people have been bending over backward to help and they’ve been great,’’ said Laura Casey, a 64-year-old from Leominster who has been working with Kennedy’s office for the past year on getting her retirement in order after working 27 years in various federal agencies. “Now I’m just on hold. And I’m very anxious.’’

Kennedy aides were preparing yesterday to begin notifying constituents. In some instances, the staff had been working for years on an issue, awaiting response from one federal agency or another, and now must get the constituent’s permission to forward the files to another congressional office, where a staff member unfamiliar with the case will try to resume the work.

The cases would probably be sent to either Senator John F. Kerry’s office or the offices of House members from the Bay State.

About 700 to 800 cases remain open and active in Kennedy’s office. Kerry’s aides said last night that they will take on the Kennedy cases but were still figuring out how they can assume the cases that are medically sensitive and confidential. They also plan to take on new cases.

Kerry himself said that maintaining constituent services is one of the reasons an interim senator should be appointed.

“If we have a temporary appointment, then his staff can remain for the full five months, and that helps us in Massachusetts,’’ Kerry said in an interview, adding that he plans to testify next week before a hearing at the State House on the issue. “It helps citizens who need things done, it helps us to be able to respond to people, it helps us double team with other senators to get things done.’’

Nancy Erickson, the secretary of the Senate, is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the chamber, from keeping minutes of meetings to purchasing office supplies. The office also is in charge of payroll and assumes powers over an office when there is a vacancy.

Erickson declined requests for an interview but emphasized in a statement that her actions are dictated by Senate law. “The Senate community mourns the passing of Sen. Kennedy. We appreciate the work Sen. Kennedy and his staff have done for the people of Massachusetts and the nation throughout the years,’’ Erickson said in the statement.

The staff continues to be paid for up to 60 days, and the secretary of the Senate can certify certain office expenses, according to legislation the Senate approved by a voice vote in 1984. The law also says the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration can determine whether more time is needed.

A spokesman for US Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and chairman of the Senate rules committee, did not return a call seeking comment on whether he would pursue an extension on the amount of time Kennedy’s office has before shutting down.

Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, who has been focused on shepherding through a health care overhaul, declined to comment through his spokesman, Jim Manley, except to say, “We’ll continue to assess the situation.’’

Massachusetts is one of the few states that have a special election for a US Senate vacancy, so the problem of not having representation for several months is rare. Most other states have laws that give the governor the power to appoint a replacement.

The issue did arise earlier this year when Minnesota went without a senator for several months while courts decided who won the election between incumbent Senator Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.

Lisa Wangsness of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at