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Accident probe has Reilly campaign on hold

For six months, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's campaign for governor has been stuck in neutral. Now, 10 weeks before the Democratic primary, tragedy in a Big Dig tunnel has thrust him into the biggest news story of the summer.

In launching a criminal investigation into the accident that killed a 38-year-old woman Monday night, Reilly has put on hold his months-long pursuit of up to $108 million from contractors for botched Big Dig work in return for some release from future liability.

Even before these latest developments, however, the Reilly campaign was ramping up efforts to reverse a trend in a trio of recent polls , in which Reilly, once the odds-on favorite, has dropped behind front-runner Deval Patrick and, in some cases, Christopher Gabrieli, in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Two 30-second advertisements have already been produced and delivered to television stations to begin airing soon, and the campaign is about to bring aboard John A. Stefanini, a former state legislator and trusted Reilly operative, to beef up the campaign.

Often awkward politically, the career prosecutor should be on familiar ground in leading a probe into possible criminal negligence in connection with the death of Milena Del Valle of Jamaica Plain, who was crushed to death Monday by a falling 3- ton concrete panel in a tunnel leading to the Ted Williams Tunnel.

But the publicity also serves as a reminder of past hit-or-miss forays by Reilly's office into the morass of tunnel leaks, ceiling failure, and cost overruns at the $14.6 billion Big Dig during his 7 1/2 years in office. In May, a joint investigation with the US attorney's office produced federal fraud charges against six managers of a Big Dig supplier of allegedly tainted concrete. But at least two other criminal probes announced by Reilly apparently have come up empty.

Meanwhile, the attorney general's cost-recovery negotiations with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the project's design and construction manager, remains up in the air. Reilly told reporters yesterday, a day after he subpoenaed documents from the firm as part of the probe of this week's tunnel accident, that those negotiations are on hold, pending the outcome of the criminal investigation into Monday's death.

Christy Mihos, an independent candidate for governor, has repeatedly criticized Reilly's cost-recovery efforts, which he said should be handled independently. As a member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board from 1998 to 2004, Mihos was highly critical of Bechtel.

Since the accident, Reilly essentially suspended his campaign for two days. Last night he skipped a candidates' forum on environmental issues in Cambridge.

``He's focusing his time on the criminal investigation," campaign spokesman Corey Welford said of the decision not to attend the event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ``We're making decisions about Tom's time on a case-by-case basis."

Early advertising is often a sign of a campaign in need of momentum, but the decision to go ahead with television ads and beef up staff does not reflect any sense of panic, several Reilly aides insisted. Two senior advisers, who requested anonymity, said Reilly's own polling indicates the campaign has stabilized after a rocky six months and shows him close behind Patrick. Both attributed the improvement to his statewide tour, in which he touts issues aimed at working-class Democrats and moderate independents.

``We're on a path that we mapped out long ago in terms of staffing and strategy," Welford said. ``We're entering the most important phase of the campaign, and it's only natural that Tom's more trusted people play a larger role."

Stefanini, who helped manage Reilly's first campaign for Middlesex district attorney in 1990, is expected to step into a key role, one adviser said, working closely with the attorney general's institutional allies, elected officials such as mayors and legislators, to maximize organizational strength on primary day.

Reilly's campaign considers its ties to political figures with their established field operations a major asset to vie with Patrick, a first-time candidate who is waging a highly sophisticated grass-roots effort to recruit many new people into the process.

In recent weeks, Will Keyser, who managed Reilly's 1998 campaign for attorney general, has spent more time on the campaign, Welford confirmed. Keyser, who is unpaid, continues to work as an executive at Hill Holliday, the Boston advertising firm.

The campaign has not yet bought air time for its ads but one senior campaign official said the ad launch will occur within a matter of days. He would not discuss their content or themes.

Early spending carries some risk for Reilly, who has about $4 million in his campaign chest. Though he has raised the most money in the three-way field, his resources are more limited than Gabrieli, a wealthy venture capitalist, who spent almost $2.9 million of his own money in a matter of weeks before the party's June 3 convention. In June, Gabrieli kicked in another $500,000 and has millions more available.

Patrick had about $1.5 million on hand as of the end of June, and has spent only a small amount on Internet advertising.

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