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Patrick has double standard, critics say

He assails Baker but tapped officials with Big Dig roles

‘BIG DIG CULTURE’ Some analysts say Patrick’s appointments somewhat impair his ability to attack Baker for his role in the project. ‘BIG DIG CULTURE’
Some analysts say Patrick’s appointments somewhat impair his ability to attack Baker for his role in the project.
By Michael Rezendes
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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Since the early days of the gubernatorial race, Governor Deval Patrick and his campaign have repeatedly attacked Republican Charles D. Baker over his role in the $15 billion Big Dig, for which Baker assembled a financing plan during peak construction years.

Patrick, during a recent radio debate, derided Baker for his involvement, just as the state Democratic Party was updating a website designed to remind voters of Baker’s history with the massive highway project. In his speech at the Democratic Convention last month, Patrick reprised a theme from his campaign four years ago, promising “a permanent end to the Big Dig culture.’’

But the attacks by Patrick and other Democrats belie the fact that the governor has tapped at least four officials who played roles in the project to fill key posts in his administration.

They include Jeffrey B. Mullan, Patrick’s secretary of transportation and chief executive of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation; Joseph Landolfi, a former top media strategist for Patrick who is now assistant transportation secretary; James A. Aloisi Jr., who preceded Mullan as transportation secretary and has since left the administration; and Arthur Bernard, Patrick’s chief of staff.

Mullan worked for the state acquiring land for the Big Dig before joining the law firm Foley Hoag, where he continued working on the project as a private lawyer. Landolfi became chief of staff at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in the early 2000s, to help the agency recover from revelations of major cost overruns. Bernard played a lesser role, as a Turnpike Authority lawyer when the authority was taking control of the Ted Williams Tunnel, a major component of the Big Dig.

None of the officials now working for Patrick played a role as central to the project as Baker’s. Aloisi, however, as chief counsel for the Turnpike Authority, was lead writer of the law that transferred the Big Dig to the authority, and later worked as its outside counsel. His appointment as transportation secretary a year and a half ago drew fire from some Patrick supporters, who were dismayed that the governor would appoint someone with such deep ties to the project.

Administration officials insist that Patrick has changed what he calls the Big Dig culture by abolishing the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, refinancing much of its debt, and bringing accountability to the state’s huge transportation bureaucracy.

“We’re being straight with people about what we can afford,’’ said Doug Rubin, a senior strategist for the Patrick campaign. “Charlie Baker still hasn’t offered an account of his role in the Big Dig, and that’s typical of the culture of previous administrations.’’

But others say Patrick is using a double standard, attacking “Big Dig culture’’ while relying on top staff integrally involved in that world. Critics say the appointments raise questions about the sincerity of Patrick’s rhetoric and his ability to follow through with his pledge to open a new chapter in state government.

“Before making accusations he needs to look in the mirror and consider his own appointments,’’ said Mary Z. Connaughton, a Republican candidate for state auditor and a former board member of the Turnpike Authority, which managed the Big Dig. “The Big Dig culture is still alive on Beacon Hill.’’

At the heart of Patrick’s critique of Baker is the role the Republican played in engineering a financing plan that pushed politically difficult decisions about taxes and tolls into the future, and instead borrowed heavily to fund construction, diverting federal highway aid from state bridges and roads. But Patrick is planning to finance his $3 billion bridge repair program with a borrowing plan that echoes the one Baker authored.

Some analysts, including Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, say that the appointments, as well as Patrick’s use of a Big Dig-style borrowing plan, “somewhat impairs’’ his ability to attack Baker for his role in the project.

Others, noting that the Big Dig spanned almost two decades, question whether it would be possible to run the state’s sprawling transportation network competently without relying on managers with experience on the project.

“You would in many cases be rooting out first-rate public servants,’’ said Stephen Crosby, dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “There were problems on the Big Dig, to be sure, but it also had a tremendous number of competent professionals of all types working on it.’’

Indeed, Crosby stood at the heart of the gubernatorial administration of Paul Cellucci when it was rocked by revelations of major cost overruns on the Big Dig. In response, Cellucci named Andrew Natsios, then his secretary of administration and finance, to the top Big Dig position; Crosby took over for Natsios.

When Baker was secretary of administration and finance, from 1994 to 1998, he engineered a plan to fund the Big Dig’s peak construction years, a time of diminishing federal support, by borrowing $1.5 billion against the future federal highway aid. That debt is scheduled to be paid off in 2015, at a cost of more than $800 million in interest to state taxpayers.

Today, Patrick is poised to borrow $1.1 billion against future federal highway aid to help fund his Accelerated Bridge Program. That debt will be paid off in 2021, with interest estimated at more than $200 million.

Michael Widmer — president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed fiscal watchdog group — has criticized both borrowing plans because they put off the costs of transportation projects with borrowed funds, saddling taxpayers with burdensome interest payments.

But he said the Patrick plan is less egregious than Baker’s, because it will not divert federal highway money away from state bridges and roads and because it may save money by rebuilding bridges before they deteriorate further, triggering more costly repairs. “It’s less fiscally irresponsible,’’ he said.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at mrezendes@globe.com.

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