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Ex-lawmaker's wife got pension boost

Credit given for Lynn library job

By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / April 19, 2009
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LYNN - A decade ago the Lynn City Council took an obscure vote that allowed Linda Bassett to apply six years of unpaid library trustee service to her government pension. The benefit was extraordinary, and not just because it allowed Bassett to boost her pension by thousands of dollars for working as a community volunteer.

It also made her the second half of a North Shore couple with extraordinary pension benefits.

Linda Bassett and her husband have each won unusually generous retirement benefits using a combination of insider savvy, little-known provisions of law, and political connections.

The Globe last week detailed how Timothy A. Bassett, a 61-year-old former Democratic state representative and former Essex treasurer, benefited greatly from a special pension provision pushed by former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, also a Democrat, and the Legislature. The carefully tailored provision, which did not mention Bassett by name, permitted him to collect his $41,000-a-year state pension even while working full time as the Essex Regional Retirement Board chairman and executive director, a job that currently pays him an estimated $123,000 a year.

His wife, Linda, 60, currently collects $26,000 a year in pension benefits, even while continuing to work part time as a cooking teacher at North Shore Community College in Danvers, a position that pays her nearly $20,000 a year. About $5,500 of her pension is the result of her six years of volunteer service as a Lynn library trustee.

The Bassetts, who moved from Lynn to Marblehead in 1994, did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Previously, Timothy Bassett released a statement: "I have spent my entire adult life in public service and hopefully I have done some good. My wife served as a dedicated teacher. We have never done anything inappropriate."

Lynn officials who were involved in helping Linda Bassett win pension credit for volunteer library service said they have no recollection of the matter, despite an extensive paper record.

"This really shocks me," said Patrick J. McManus, the former Lynn mayor and a friend of the Bassetts who signed a measure clearing the way for her pension increase.

"Clearly something went wrong," said McManus. "To get that kind of money for what is supposed to be voluntary service, that's just wrong."

An ongoing Globe series has detailed how some state and local officials have received special and enhanced pensions for serving as volunteer town moderators, after getting fired from state jobs, and by using political connections in high places. The phenomenon of pension credit for volunteer library trustees was the subject of a Globe article published Feb. 11 that focused on John A. Brennan Jr., a former state senator and Beacon Hill lobbyist.

Brennan used the library trustee provision to boost his pension by $22,000 a year, beginning in February. But after the Globe story about his pension, the Malden City Council took steps to strip the benefit, and Brennan announced on April 3 that he would waive his right to the pension increase.

Without library trustee credits, Linda Bassett's pension from her position as a teacher at North Shore Community College and two area high schools would have been about $18,500 - 29 percent less than she now receives. Her pension also includes a $2,200 annual boost, the result of a state law that gave a pension bonus to any retiring state employee whose spouse had already retired from the state. The Legislature repealed the bonus in 2003.

Linda Bassett, when she retired at age 53, also received three months' credit for her work as a substitute teacher in the Lynn schools, worth about $300 a year on her pension. Gary B. Brenner, executive director of the Lynn retirement system, said local rules prohibit such credit, but the state granted it nonetheless.

But the biggest bonus for Bassett was the six years of credit for her library trustee service, even though the board of trustee minutes show that during a two-year stretch she missed every single library board meeting - 16 straight meetings. During the four years that she sporadically attended Lynn library board meetings, she was present for a total of only 18 hours, according to the Globe review of board minutes.

The six years of credit nonetheless will result in about $165,000 in added pension payments if she lives to age 83, as actuarial calculations predict, or more than $9,100 for every hour she spent at library meetings.

Pension credit for municipal library trustees was authorized by the Legislature in an obscure 1998 amendment. To win the credit, a trustee's municipal government must vote to accept the statute.

In Lynn, the reasoning behind the City Council's approval of the law in May 1999 is murky. The ordinance was put forth by James Cowdell, then a city councilor and now head of the city development agency. Interviewed in his office this week, Cowdell said, "I honestly don't remember filing the ordinance at all."

McManus, who signed the measure after the council's action, also said he does not remember it.

"But obviously, if I signed it, then I made a mistake," he said.

McManus said that he sometimes signed a stack of as many as 200 documents in one sitting and that he might have signed the measure without knowing what it said.

There are indications in public records that Timothy Bassett was kept abreast of developments regarding his wife's pension credit. On Dec. 29, 1999, then-city clerk Robert G. Furlong wrote an official letter "to whom it may concern" that detailed the dates of Linda Bassett's service as a library trustee in the 1980s. The letter was later submitted to the Lynn retirement board when Linda Bassett sought credit for her library service.

Furlong's letter shows that a copy of it was sent to Peter C. McCarthy, a former state representative from Peabody who has long been in the lobbying business with Timothy Bassett.

McCarthy said he did not know how his name and address wound up on the letter.

"I have no idea," said McCarthy, who says Timothy Bassett currently works with him as a lobbyist.

But Furlong, in an interview, recalled McCarthy's role and McCarthy's association with Timothy Bassett.

"McCarthy called me and asked me to research it," he said. "I would assume he wanted it for Bassett. What other reason would he want it for?"

Another letter buried in Lynn City Hall files is a notice from the Lynn retirement board to Linda Bassett that her library service had been accepted for pension credit. At the bottom of the page is a notation indicating the letter was also sent to her husband, "T. Bassett, Essex Regional Ret't Board."

Asked by the Globe whether he was involved in getting credit for his wife, Timothy Bassett did not respond.

The same year that Lynn City Hall officials were taking actions that were favorable to Linda Bassett, the Legislature, at the behest of Finneran, was carving out a special provision for Timothy Bassett. An 84-word amendment attached to the budget in 1999 allowed Bassett to collect his state pension while also working full time for the Essex Regional Retirement Board.

Harriett L. Stanley, a West Newbury state representative who handled the matter, told the Globe this month that she inserted the amendment because Finneran had told her in 1999 to "take care of Timmy Bassett."

Sean Murphy's e-mail address is smurphy@globe.com.

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