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Former DiMasi aides still on House payroll

Employees given office, but duties are unclear

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / March 19, 2009
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Eleven staff members of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi have continued collecting state paychecks and health benefits even though DiMasi resigned under a cloud in January and they have no clearly defined responsibilities at the State House, state officials said.

The arrangement demonstrates how staff members of top lawmakers are sometimes treated more favorably than other state workers whose jobs are eliminated.

Several staff members for House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who also resigned amid allegations of ethics violations, were kept on the state payroll for up to four months after he stepped down as speaker, according to House personnel records.

Taxpayers have been paying more than $14,000 a week to keep DiMasi's former aides on the state payroll. The staff members include DiMasi's former chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, policy aides, his former press spokesman, and lower-level administrative secretaries.

DiMasi's successor, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, has given the staff members a fourth-floor office. DeLeo's spokesman, Seth Gitell, could not say whether they show up on a daily basis or what they do when they are there.

One of the staff members, who would only comment on the condition that she not be named, said she arrives every day and "does whatever is asked of her."

Another, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aides are helping DeLeo with the transition, but Gitell would not verify whether they had any such duties. Two of the staff members are community liaisons who will continue to perform their regular duties until a new representative is elected to succeed DiMasi in June, Gitell said.

"Some staff members of the former speaker are here during a traditional period of transition," Gitell said in an e-mailed statement. "Others remain to provide constituent services for the people of the Third Suffolk District."

He said the payments to the former staff members "will come to an end," but he would not give a specific date.

Yesterday the door to Room 436 was locked at 4 p.m. after two of the staff members, former communications director David Guarino and former deputy communications director Victoria Bonney, left the office. This week Guarino and Bonney announced they have taken new jobs. They will stop collecting checks from the state this week. They declined to comment, referring questions to Gitell.

Although aides of legislators who lose or vacate their seats often stay behind until the end of the term to work with constituents, the concept of paying people after their jobs are eliminated is virtually unheard of in the rest of state government. A spokesman for Governor Deval Patrick said it has never kept anyone on the payroll after jobs were eliminated.

Gitell said aides to other former House speakers remained on the payroll long after their bosses departed, providing termination letters for a handful of aides to Finneran. The letters indicated the staff members kept getting paid until January 2005, four months after their boss resigned as speaker in September of 2004. Finneran, whose former spokesman could not be reached for comment, did not resign his House seat until Dec. 31, 2004.

The state is paying the former DiMasi staff members when thousands of other Massachusetts residents have lost their jobs because of the national recession and skyrocketing unemployment rates.

"Nobody is doing anything to prolong the relationship with the building," said one of the former DiMasi aides. "We are available to do whatever they want us to do. We would still be there, except for the political circumstances. We're hard-working people, like everyone else. All we want is to be able to move on and not be in the news."

Several of the aides did not return phone calls seeking comment. Others had unlisted phone numbers and could not be reached for comment.

Other of DiMasi's former aides are already in new jobs, working either for DeLeo or the House Ways and Means Committee, including two executive secretaries, a researcher, a receptionist, and a policy adviser. One former DiMasi adviser, Christie Hager, who was chief counsel on healthcare, has taken a job at Harvard, Gitell said.

Aaron Michlewitz, who served as DiMasi's constituent services director for 4 1/2 years, quit in February and is running for DiMasi's North End seat.

"I chose to resign because I didn't feel it was appropriate for me to be running for the seat while on the state's payroll," said Michlewitz, one of several candidates in the June special election. He would not comment on the decision by other staff members to remain on the state payroll, saying, "I can only speak for myself."

Republicans and conservative watchdogs yesterday said paying former staff members who have no clear duties sends the wrong message to beleaguered taxpayers facing possible tax hikes, including a proposal to increase the gas tax, and service cuts.

"There should be no talk of tax increases until we eliminate obvious inefficiencies such as we are witnessing here," said David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute. "This is just one of many instances in which the state is wasting money. It's our position that the state needs to address waste and excessive costs before there is any discussion of a tax increase."

Representative Lewis Evangelidis, a Republican from Holden, said lawmakers seem detached from real-world concerns of their constituents.

"People outside the building are really hurting right now,' he said. "I've never seen people so insecure about their situation and the country as a whole. When they see . . . these types of abuses, it frustrates people. They say, 'We're tightening our belts and saving every penny, and look at the way they're acting up there on Beacon Hill.' We're not living up to the standard that everyone else is."

But Representative Daniel Bosley, Democrat of North Adams, said that keeping a speaker's staff in place during a transition period is a longstanding tradition that makes sense.

"Sal kept Finneran's staff on, and Finneran kept [former speaker Charles] F. Flaherty's staff," said Bosley, a staunch DiMasi ally. "When there is a transition period, if you keep the staff on for a time certain, it gives you an opportunity to tap into the institutional knowledge of the group. If you were coming into a company, you would do the same thing. You would keep valuable staff on."

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

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