Michael E. McLaughlin resigned as Chelsea, Massachusetts housing director last month, after it was revealed that he had manipulated his way into a $360,000 salary. Now it is being discovered, thanks to some investigative reporting by the Boston Globe, that McLaughlin wasn’t merely overpaid as perhaps the highest compensated state housing official in the nation. He apparently worked only 15 full days in Chelsea for the entire year, in an epic example of official deception and sloth at taxpayer expense.
The Globe’s smoking gun evidence consists of interviews and phone records, which clearly show that McLaughlin went to extraordinary lengths to avoid performing much work related to his job managing low-income housing in Chelsea. He didn’t appear in Chelsea for half the working days in 2011, choosing to spend 47 weekdays in Maine and Florida with his top assistant and “close personal friend” (ahem!), Linda Thibodeau. Then there were another 21 work days spent at conferences in warm cities like Phoenix to Miami, also usually with the comely Thibodeau to keep him company.
Employees who talked to Globe reporters described a manager who, when he did arrive, hung around long enough to give orders and then checked out by lunch or early afternoon, never to return. While maintaining this leisurely schedule, McLaughlin told the city that he hardly ever rested from his labors. “On the day he resigned,” reports the Globe, “McLaughlin cosigned a check to himself for $81,578 for unused vacation time, a payment that would be legitimate under the terms of his contract only if he had limited himself to four vacation days annually since 2003.” McLaughlin also seldom took an official sick day, permitting him to write a check to himself for another $114,237 on his last day at “work,” for unused sick leave.
McLaughlin’s fraudulent but well-compensated work habits have illuminated an environment of self-aggrandizement and corruption in the Massachusetts housing authority, which is now the target of state and federal investigations. The housing authority is now operated by a state receiver, since McLaughlin and the entire board of directors resigned once it appeared that the jig was up. The Globe says that the FBI is investigating “whether McLaughlin, a former state legislator and longtime Democratic powerbroker, illegally diverted federal funds to his own use.”
What do we call it when someone accepts over $300,000 to do a job and spends his time goofing off and romping in sunny climes with his girlfriend, who he has also given a state-paid job?
McLaughlin made sure that the authority’s accountant shredded weekly time sheets that would have shown the suspicious work schedule of McLaughlin and others, especially his completely platonic and absolutely qualified female side-kick, Thibodeau . Luckily for investigators, McLaughlin lived on his cellphone, which allowed the Globe to reconstruct what he was doing while the people of Chelsea and Massachusetts were paying him a princely sum to do things he wasn’t doing. The records show that between Jan. 1, 2011 and McLaughlin’s resignation, he was in Chelsea on 106 days, but worked fewer than 7 hours in 91 of them. The 15 full work days he worked coincided with board meetings or inspections by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which always rated the authority a “high performer’’ during McLaughlin’s tenure. So much for oversight. In fact, the entire saga of the Chelsea housing authority shows what lax oversight all levels of government sometimes—Often? Usually?—devote to making sure citizens get what they pay for.
Is McLaughlin a bad apple, an exception, an aberration? The Globe’s evidence suggests a much deeper scandal, with him exchanging phone calls with Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray more than 120 times this year, a continuing dialogue that abruptly stopped when the Globe first disclosed McLaughlin’s inflated salary, which, by the way, was gradually increased over time by a board hand-picked by McLaughlin himself. No, he is far from an exception. In all likelihood, Michael E. McLaughlin is just a spectacular example of a common species in state and local governments, a corrupt official who regards public service as an opportunity to live high while delivering little, aided by incompetent and complacent oversight by the feds and cronies in high places.
Now that the decades of irresponsible government budgets administered by the irresponsible, the lazy, the greedy and the incompetent are signaling that they will exact significant pain from taxpayers, more and more McLaughlins will be discovered in every state in America. Count on it. One of the slim silver linings in times of economic hardship is that everyone starts paying attention to crooked public officials who could slide by when the coffers were full. Then they realize how shoddy government oversight really is, and reforms can occur. It’s all much too late, of course, but better late than not at all.
And the next time you find yourself in an argument with someone who says it is only fair that spending reductions should be balanced by an equal amount of tax increases, introduce him or her to the hard-working Mr. McLaughlin.