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Massport working to shed image as patronage haven

By Steve Leblanc, Associated Press

BOSTON When acting Gov. Jane Swift vowed to stamp out patronage at Logan International Airport, she brought a unique insight to the problem.

Swift was once a political appointee at the Massachusetts Port Authority, the agency in charge of the airport that became a launching pad for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In the aftermath of the hijackings, Swift pledged to quash the agency's reputation as a dumping ground for failed candidates, former aides and the politically wired.

She didn't have far to look.

The head of the agency, Virginia Buckingham, was a former press aide and chief of staff to governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci. The agency's safety director, Joseph Lawless, was Weld's former state police driver.

Buckingham's two predecessors, Peter Blute and Stephen Tocco, were also political appointees with little or no direct experience running an airport.

Identifying a problem was one thing. Rooting out a cherished perk enjoyed by Massachusetts' political elite proved harder.

Swift appointed a six-member commission to conduct a top to bottom review of the agency.

Although the commission noted the hijackers did not break any laws before boarding the planes, it labeled patronage a "four-headed monster" and said the practice "eroded public confidence in Massport."

Their solution? Hire a hard-charging CEO with a strong aviation experience and insulate him from political intimidation by offering four-year contracts.

"We protected him from the horrible Massachusetts political history and networks ... so he doesn't serve at the whimsy of Beacon Hill," said Marshall Carter, the head of the commission.

Equally important was creating detailed descriptions for other Massport jobs as a bulwark against pressure to hire unqualified but politically connected candidates.

"If Senator X or Congressman Y sends over someone and says 'I want this person hired,' they can go back and say this person does not meet the requirements," Carter said.

In December, the task force released a scathing review that found Massport's mission had become muddled and that the agency suffered from poor leadership, a lack of accountability and inefficient structure.

The commission reserved its harshest words for patronage, calling it "a disturbing a way of life" that has caused festering resentment among staff and drained talent, time and money from the agency's operations.

The report said the "four-headed monster" consisted of the agency's practice of hiring people with political connections; creating positions for unqualified applicants; working with businesses and projects recommended by insiders; and making contributions to local causes to "buy" community goodwill.

"In the post September 11th world, patronage cannot be tolerated as the most expedient means to an end," the report read

Swift, who was appointed by Weld as Massport's director of regional airport development after a failed run for Congress in 1996, embraced the recommendations and promised to make no more political appointments.

By then, Buckingham had resigned, Lawless was reassigned, and post-attack economic losses forced Massport to cut 15 percent of its work force, meaning there were fewer patronage jobs to hand out.

Despite the criticism leveled at Massport, patronage has its defenders.

"There is good patronage and there is bad patronage and you generally don't know which is which until the person is in the job and see how they do," said U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass. "Just because someone knows a politician is not necessarily a bad thing."

There are good reasons to place politically connected people in top positions, according to Blute, who was forced from his Massport post after being spotted on a taxpayer-funded party cruise in 1999.

Patronage appointees act as liaisons between the agency and the administration to reflect the will of voters, Blute said.

"Is there patronage at Massport? Sure. Governors have not been shy in trying to fill positions that were fillable with politically connected people," he said. "But you need to have a reflection of the election."

Political observers are also quick to note that Massport is not the only state agency that has been used for patronage. The head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Matthew Amorello, was named highway commissioner in 1999 after a failed congressional bid.

In April, Craig Coy, a former White House adviser on counterterrorism with a background in the aviation industry and knowledge of maritime issues, took over as the new head of Massport.

Massport is well on its way to shedding its patronage past, according to Coy, who pointed to his own appointment as proof. Coy said the first time he met Swift was after the board tapped him for the top post.

While the agency won't automatically dismiss someone referred to it through political networking, it will no longer higher unqualified candidates or invent jobs as favors, he said.

"What we don't want is to be in a hammerlock to hire people into jobs that don't really exist or to hire unqualified people," Coy said.

Massport has instituted a hiring freeze until job descriptions are completed for the agency's 1,150 positions, Coy said. When jobs open up, they will be posted and those interested must apply through the personnel department.

"This is turning around a battleship," Coy said. "We're trying to overcome years of inertia in the way people think about Massport."

Massport wasn't always stuffed with political appointees, according to former Gov. Michael Dukakis, who said the agency resisted patronage hires under his administration.

"If you are running the place and turning it into a patronage cesspool you can hardly inspire public confidence if something does happen," he said.

Some changes at Massport have been stymied by lack of legislative action.

Among other recommendations, the commission advised expanding the Massport board from seven to nine members, updating professional qualifications, creating a separate 911 emergency zone for the airport, increasing fines for security violations from $2,000 to $25,000 and creating a 500-foot security zone around the airport.

Lawmakers approved the 500-foot security zone but failed to act on the other recommendations. They also allowed professional clam diggers to return to beds near the runways, which the commission opposed.

"The demands of the public post 9-11 was to strengthen Massport and make the airport more secure and they've done none of that," Carter said. "That's my big disappointment."

Today's news:
Ceremony at Ground Zero
Mass. remembers victims
Silence, tears mark day at Logan
Under alert, Mass. carries on
Bush faces day with resolve
World remembers attacks in US
Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.
Updated wire coverage

Photo galleries:
Families mourn, remember
Ceremony at Ground Zero
Ceremony at the Pentagon
Ceremony at Pa. crash scene
Remembrances worldwide
Remembrances in Boston

NECN RealVideo:
Moment of silence observed
Ceremony at State House
Gettysburg Address read
Procession at Ground Zero
A somber travel day at Logan
Images of Sept. 11, 2001



Preparing for the worst
Security has become the new norm in Greater Boston.


Fear and children
Children's responses may shed light on human anxiety, resiliency.


Muslim minds
The US effort to win over Muslim hearts and minds is failing.


Science vs. terrorism
New chemical, biological threats spur nation's top minds.


For those deported after Sept. 11, the losses are wrenching.


A special Magazine issue
A Sept. 11 narrative by former Massport chief Virginia Buckingham, plus an essay by Christopher Hitchens.

A special Arts section
How culture has changed since Sept. 11, including a gallery of art inspired by the attacks.

A special Focus section
A look at how the lives of six Americans were altered.

Everywhere USA
Terrorism comes to God's country.


Where is Al Qaeda?
How have bin Laden and his terrorist group eluded US forces?


Two cities
New York and DC one year later.


America remembers
The US looks back at the terrorist attacks.

Victims and survivors
A year later, still hurting.

A time for bells and remembrance
A clash of views on terror
Limited damage to the economy
Families build support system
NYC's healing process
Finding comfort in the kitchen
Bailey: A day of atonement

From the Associated Press:
Tribute paid with tattoos
Charities changed by 9/11
White House calls home
9/11 stole innocence, love
Man escaped earthquake, 9/11
Update on 9/11's famous faces
Firemen still burying dead
A mother's note to a lost son
9/11 created heroes in death
Voice mails bring comfort
Little things hold memories
87th floor survivor copes
Sampling of 9/11 memorials
Pentagon survivors move on
Moments of silence on Sept. 11
Survivors try to move forward
Families cling to chances
Sept. 11 widow trying to forgive
Widow becomes an advocate
Workplace response varies
Graphic: Funds offer relief

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