Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Early Warnings

An unexpected political opportunity opened for Mitch Ogulewicz in 1988. The person representing the state senatorial district that Mitch lived in, Martin Reilly, suddenly announced that he would not be seeking re-election. Reilly’s retirement came after a long fall from grace, a fall critics believed had been orchestrated by the Springfield Newspapers.

Rumors were swirling in the spring of ’88 that the region’s longtime congressman, Eddie Boland, was retiring. Reilly was considered a major contender to seek Boland’s seat and was thought to be the only contender who was capable of beating Springfield Mayor Richard Neal for the Democratic nomination. However, the newspaper, generally sleepy and indifferent when it came to sniffing out conflicts of interest (including their own) as early as 1986 began attacking Reilly with stories implying that Reilly may have used his office to facilitate real estate deals and his position on the Senate banking committee to improperly acquire personal loans.

An ethics probe eventually cleared Reilly of all the newspaper’s charges of wrong-doing, but that process took many months. In the meantime, the damage done by the newspaper’s phoney scandal, combined with personal family issues, forced Reilly out of the race for re-election to his senate seat. The scandal also shattered any of Reilly’s hopes for running for Congress, thereby helping to clear the field for Neal. However, that outcome also left Neal deeply indebted to the newspaper. Soon after Reilly announced his retirement, Mitch received a phone call from his friend State Representative Ken Lemanski urging him to jump into the race for Reilly’s seat. Two others had already announced, former State Rep. Sean Cahillaine and Mitch’s Council colleague, Francis Keough. Republican activist Brian Lees also entered the fray.

Lemanski’s logic for why Ogulewicz should run was compelling. With Keough and Cahillaine splitting the Irish vote, Mitch could be expected to capitalize on the strong Polish vote in Ludlow, Chicopee and Indian Orchard. Since the district was heavily Democratic, the winner of the Democratic primary was considered to have little problem beating Brian Lees in November. (Actually, Lees was the ultimate winner, thanks in part to the terrible campaign run by the eventual Democrat nominee, Frankie Keough). The race was also tempting for Mitch because such openings did not occur often as state legislators often serve for decades. Therefore, an opportunity such as this to run for a wide open seat might not come again in Mitch’s lifetime.

Yet despite all the positives, Mitch ultimately decided against it. With young children still at home, the large amount of time he would have to spend in Boston would simply be too much of a hardship on his family. Reluctantly, Mitch decided not to compete for the seat and instead to continue his work on the City Council. In retrospect, that was probably not the best choice, since little did Mitch know that his Council career was soon to come to an unplanned end, as many of the same forces that had destroyed Martin Reilly were already beginning to focus their attention on him.

Yet, Ogulewicz remained for the time being blissfully unaware of the storm to come, although in retrospect the warning signs were there. The first was an unexpected letter Mitch received from two longtime Springfield printers, John and William Santaniello. Their letter suggested that something was amiss in the Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs (MOCA). The Santaniello’s had been invited by MOCA to bid on some flyers the organization was printing for a community event. MOCA was at that time a semi-independent entity that raised money to put on special events, such as the Fourth of July fireworks, the Pancake Breakfast and the Taste of Springfield.

According to the Santaniello’s, they had presented the lowest bid for the work, and yet had been passed over for a higher bid offered by an outfit called Italia Printers. The Santaniello's were furious over this perceived injustice, but when they complained about it they were told that the lowest bidder did not have to be the firm chosen, but merely someone chosen from the best three offers. Of course such an arrangement begged to be abused, since it meant that bidders could be granted contracts for political as well as financial considerations.

While there was little that Mitch could do for the Santaniello’s, he discussed the matter with fellow Councilor Vincent DiMonaco, who had already expressed concern about MOCA and who had always prided himself as a defender of the small businessperson. Together they decided to take an indepth look into the finances and management of the Mayor's Office of Community Affairs.

What their research uncovered was that MOCA owed money to small businesses all over the city and was in debt to the tune of over two hundred thousand dollars! Ogulewicz and DiMonaco demanded an explanation, while freshman Councilor Kateri Walsh called for an official audit of MOCA’s finances. In response, the Neal Administration became very defensive.

MOCA was headed by the universally praised Judith Matt, a dynamo of energy and a brilliant organizer of large-scale events. Yet by her own admission, Matt was more of a doer than an administrator, more concerned with pulling off a successful event than worrying about how to pay for it. Technically, MOCA had no budget from the city, although it often received free services from city departments and Matt herself received a tax-funded salary. But the majority of MOCA’s money came from private fundraising, which made their cash flow unreliable and thereby left many of the businesses they dealt with waiting in line for their money long after the events the services were purchased for were over. Many business people did not know about nor understand MOCA’s unique arrangement with City Hall and therefore considered themselves to be working for the city, which tarnished the city’s reputation when they didn’t get paid in a prompt manner. In other words, MOCA was causing Springfield to gain a reputation as a municipal deadbeat.

The solution suggested by some was to make MOCA an official part of the city government with its own budget, and indeed that was what was eventually done. What was strange about the matter however, was the seemingly hysterical overreacting by Mayor Neal. At a hearing held to resolve MOCA’s difficulties the Mayor lashed into Ogulewicz, denouncing him for committing “character assassination” by daring to raise questions about so noble an organization as MOCA and having the audacity to suggest it might be run better.

Vincent DiMonaco further enraged Neal when he suggested that Neal himself might be partly to blame for MOCA’s troubles by repeatedly ordering MOCA to do things without any thought of how to pay for them. Neal angrily lectured DiMonaco on the duties of a chief executive, an odd thing to do considering that DiMonaco had been in office when Richie Neal was in grade school, and probably knew first hand more about the workings of city government than anyone else in the city.

It appeared to Mitch as if Neal were wrapping himself in the flag and declaring himself immune from criticism, a position that baffled the City Council. Why was Neal taking a simple inquiry into an obviously troubled agency so personally? Indeed, Judith Matt, who presumably had the most to lose in the controversy, was actually grateful that her longstanding financial problems had finally been brought out in the open so that they could be successfully resolved. Far from feeling that she was the victim of character assassination, Matt even sent Mitch a note thanking him for helping her organization.

There were other controversies that year during which Neal showed the same inexplicable behavior. In early August Ogulewicz received a phone call from someone who was working as a lifeguard at one of the city’s pools. The lifeguard told him that rumors were rampant that all pool workers were soon to be fired and all the pools shut down for reasons that were not yet known.

Mitch placed a phone call to Park Department head Larry Dowd, who reassured Mitch that he knew of no such plans. Yet, only two weeks later the pools did in fact shut down and the all of the workers were told they were unemployed. As Mitch soon discovered, the problem was that so many people had been hired to work for the pools and parks that the money had run out prematurely. Once again there was shades of the MOCA scandal, with Neal ordering things to be done, in this case hiring pool and park workers, without having the money to pay for them.

Yet another incident arose involving the economic development group Springfield Central, which was headed by Springfield Newspaper publisher David Starr. Under a suspension of rules, Neal brought before the Council the debt due for a city beautification program which had been handled by Springfield Central. The Councilors were furious with Neal for spending the money first, and then asking the Council to cover the bills later. That left the Council with only two choices, to either cough up the cash or stiff the people who Springfield Central had hired to do the work. Vincent DiMonaco was especially mad, accusing Neal of having the legislative process “half-ass backwards” by spending the money first, then asking for authorization for the spending later. He even suggested that Neal’s behavior might be illegal, but refrained from pursuing it further.

Still yet another forewarning involved the Police Department. Totally unexpectedly Police Chief Tommy Fitzgerald came before the Council and surprised and dismayed everyone by announcing that his department was going broke. It was discovered that Neal had ordered the hiring of 50 new cops, but had never budgeted any money to pay for them.

That kind of reckless behavior was unlike Neal, who if anything had a reputation as a stickler for the finer points of governmental procedure. No one doubted that Neal knew the process, so why was he suddenly flouting the budgetary rules and then responding so sensitively to any criticism of his unorthodox behavior? Instead of acting like a management professional, in many ways Neal seemed to be mismanaging affairs in a manner worse than that of a rank amateur. The reasons that lay behind Neal’s behavior would soon become known, and in ways that would surprise and dismay the entire city.

This video shows local news coverage of many of the issues discussed in this chronicle.

Senator Martin Reilly defending himself from newspaper attacks over a real estate development.

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