Craven case could help curb practice of `taking care of' ex-legislators

``Taking care of'' former colleagues, particularly those involuntarily ``retired'' by the voters, is almost as much a tradition in the Massachusetts legislature as familiar a part of the Massachusetts lawmaking scene as the ``sacred cod'' that hangs in the House chamber. Finally, there is at least one encouraging sign that this practice, which tends to treat the state treasury like a retirement slush fund, might be curbed. (Its elimination is probably too much to hope for.)

House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett has blocked, at least temporarily, an increase of more than one-third in the pension of former Democratic state Rep. James J. Craven Jr.

In question is whether the controversial state representative from Boston's Jamaica Plain section, unseated in last fall's election, actually held a $55,000-a-year legislative staff post to which he was appointed by lame-duck Speaker Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn in late December. A state superior court judge currently has the matter under consideration.

If, as Mr. Craven contends, he did indeed work in the job for two days -- Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 -- that would almost certainly clear the way for Craven to qualify for a pension of just under $40,000 a year, nearly double what he would otherwise receive.

Having served in the legislature for three decades, Craven is entitled to retirement income. Nobody, least of all Speaker Keverian, disputes that. Yet it is seldom possible to justify anyone receiving a pension higher than his top income while in office. In Craven's case, that figure is $30,000.

It seems most likely that Mr. McGee's employment of the recently defeated legislator as his chief administrative aide in the waning days of McGee's House leadership (when the Speaker was virtually certain he would be replaced by Keverian) was intended to help substantially boost the Craven pension. If so, it was a ``thank you'' gesture to one of the minority of House members who supported McGee in his predictably unsuccessful bid to retain the speakership.

It must be noted that during McGee's nearly decade-long tenure as Speaker he at no point appointed Representative Craven to even one of the less-demanding House chairmanships. Such a post would have qualified Craven for a pension based on a salary of $37,500 a year. As a war veteran whose many years on the public payroll began prior to 1939 and embraced more than three decades of state employment, Mr. Craven under state law qualifies for a pension of 72 percent of his highest pay. In addition, he is entitled to a lump-sum refund of what he paid into the state pension system, plus all interest earned on that money.

Pensions of state employees who are nonveterans or came to work for the commonwealth within the past 45 years are based on length of service and pegged to an average of the three years in which they received the most pay. And their retirement-fund contributions are not returned, with or without interest.

Had Speaker Keverian not discovered Craven's name on the payroll, the former Jamaica Plain legislator's reach for the substantially larger retirement plum might never have come to light, or at least not until it was too late to do something about stopping it.

Some might suggest the Keverian action was merely a bit of political revenge against a former colleague who was with the opposition. But having been ousted from the legislature by his district's voters, Craven could only root for McGee from the sidelines -- and with little or no effect.

Contributing to Craven's loss in the November 1984 election, no doubt, was a December 1983 House reprimand for violating the legislature's code of ethics. This followed an earlier conflict-of-interest finding against Craven and a fine by the state Ethics Commission for seeking a grant from a state agency for an organization that paid rent to a trust fund from which some members of his family had benefited.

McGee's hiring of a lame-duck lawmaker, whether to increase his pension or provide him with a high-paying State House job, underscores the need for tighter curbs to prevent this sort of thing from being attempted in the future. If, as his move against Craven would suggest, Speaker Keverian is deeply concerned about conserving the taxpayers' money and government standards of fair play and justice for all, rather than favors for special interests and individuals, he might consider taking initiating legislation or a constitutional amendment. His leadership surely could go a long way toward providing the kind of reform needed to protect the commonwealth's pension funds from being raided by those seeking to feather their own nests and those of political friends.

Also worthy of early attention is another tawdry, but unfortunately familiar, practice: dolling out special patronage to defeated legislators. In a recent example, Daniel J. Foley, an unseated Democratic state senator from Worcester, was -- in Beacon Hill venacular -- ``taken care of'' by former lawmaker colleagues. He was given the $42,286-a-year post as executive director of the Legislative Research Bureau.

In fairness to Mr. Foley, he is not the first former legislator to hold the job. His predecessor in it, Daniel O'Sullivan, also was a former legislator. But Mr. O'Sullivan served on the agency's staff for several years before becoming its director.

Although not one of the 14 lawmakers on the Legislative Research Council, the panel that oversees the research bureau's operations and staffing, Speaker Keverian clearly could have blocked the Foley appointment had he chosen to do so. But that almost certainly would have displeased Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston, who helped Foley, his former righthand man, get the job.

And, it must be noted, Foley was an able legislator who may well be an outstanding director of the research bureau.

But the fact remains that if state lawmakers were more committed to filling each job under their control with the best person available than to aiding their political associates, the image and accomplishments of Massachusetts government would no doubt be better.

For example, in filling the research bureau directorship, the legislative council should have advertised for applicants. There is no shortage of professional researchers around, especially in New England.

At least two members of the agency's staff who have proved their ability over the years appear well-qualified for the job. But under a system of political cronyism, qualifications without connections in the right places are of little account.

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