Beacon Hill's 'Old School' Corruption

Jeff Jacoby
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Posted: Jan 02, 2011 12:00 AM

Joe DeNucci, a onetime prizefighter turned Massachusetts politician, steps down this month after 34 years on Beacon Hill: 10 years as a state representative, followed by 24 years as state auditor. He is being celebrated in some circles as the last of a political breed -- an unpolished, down-to-earth, working-class guy who made good, had a big heart, and took care of his pals.

"To the end, championing others," ran the headline over a Globe story last week marking the end of DeNucci's long run in politics. The retiring auditor "is of the old school and makes no apology for that," the Globe observed. "He is the product of a culture that prized helping those around you, which has permeated Massachusetts politics for as long as anyone can remember, but is under attack now." The story makes clear that DeNucci sees nothing wrong with patronage. "We all did it," he says. "It was about helping people; some I knew, some I didn't."

A lot of people have a soft spot for DeNucci; there's no denying he has a certain rough-around-the-edges charm. On the whole I imagine that Massachusetts state government would be a little less fetid if it contained fewer glossy lawyers and consultant-crafted professional operators, and more unpolished, down-to-earth, former boxers.

But frankly, state government would be a lot less fetid if it weren't for that "old school" mindset that sees something commendable in using public office and public payrolls to hand out favors to supporters and friends. DeNucci may not be the worst offender, but who in Massachusetts politics should be held to a "Caesar's wife" standard of integrity if not the auditor, the state's top fiscal and ethical watchdog? Yet the conviction that public office is a public trust has scarcely been the lodestar of DeNucci's political career.

Consider Gaetano Spezzano, hired by DeNucci as a "fraud examiner" in 2008, though no such position was vacant and no other candidates were considered for the job. "Spezzano did not have the skills or knowledge required of a fraud examiner," the State Ethics Commission charged in September, and hadn't even completed the second half of a two-page job application. The 75-year-old Spezzano had worked as a musician and a meat salesman -- honorable work, but not much of a preparation for rooting out fraud in state government. The only reason he was hired, according to the commission, is that he and the auditor are related. "I'm his only cousin, his only family," DeNucci told the Boston Herald. "He's all by himself, except for me."

Concern for family members is a fine thing, and who wouldn't admire DeNucci had he reached into his own pocket to help his cousin out? But he didn't. He reached into our pockets -- into the pockets of the Massachusetts citizens whose interests he was elected to protect. He did the same a few months ago when he handed out across-the-board 5 percent raises to everyone on his staff: a slap in the face to Bay State taxpayers at a time when 300,000 of them are out of work, and hundreds of thousands of others have been forced to absorb pay and benefit cuts.

Go through the clips of the DeNucci years, and you come across so much of this stuff.

Here's DeNucci in 1998, collecting campaign contributions from a rogue's gallery of convicted criminals and disgraced politicians. ("This is America," his political adviser tells the press. "You can contribute to anyone you please.") Here he is in 1995, the subject of a newspaper exposé on "No-show Joe," documenting his practice of working three-day weeks, and of hanging out on the golf links when his official schedule has him in his State House. ("I don't keep a schedule," DeNucci explains. "I work out of my hip pocket, OK?") Here's the auditor in 1990, the Boston Globe reports, lobbying the state treasurer -- in the midst of an audit! -- to give his son-in-law a job.

"Old school" politics as usual? Maybe. But multiplied by all the politicians who see nothing wrong with it, across all the years they've been doing it, and it adds up to Beacon Hill's detestable, seemingly ineradicable, culture of corruption. What is the Probation Department scandal

, if not the Spezzano case writ large? "Hey, this is patronage," DeNucci told the Globe back in 1983, after pulling strings to get another ex-boxer a State House job. "I'm trying to help a friend."

They pick our pockets and pat themselves on the back, then wonder why so many of us are disgusted. DeNucci was far from the worst. More's the pity.