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Murray tied to ex-Chelsea official

Lieutenant governor, housing chief called each other more than 80 times in 7 months

Michael E. McLaughlin told colleagues at the housing authority that he was in constant touch with Murray, assuring Murray that the controversy “was a two-day story.’’ Michael E. McLaughlin told colleagues at the housing authority that he was in constant touch with Murray, assuring Murray that the controversy “was a two-day story.’’ (kayana szymczak for the boston globe)
By Andrea Estes and Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / November 18, 2011
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Governor Deval Patrick was so furious over the Chelsea Housing director’s extraordinary $360,000 salary that he called for Michael E. McLaughlin’s immediate resignation and launched a state takeover of the entire agency.

But Patrick’s second in command, Timothy P. Murray, has remained publicly silent about the alleged abuse of housing money for more than two weeks even though he has often advocated for public housing. McLaughlin once called him “the best friend public housing has ever had.’’

Now, it is becoming clear what a good friend Murray has been to McLaughlin: the two called each other more than 80 times over the last seven months, McLaughlin’s cellphone records show. When the Globe began asking McLaughlin about his true salary and why he told the state that it was only $160,000, McLaughlin called the lieutenant governor each time within hours, according to the phone records.

After the Globe printed his actual income on Oct. 30, McLaughlin told colleagues at the housing authority that he was in constant touch with Murray, assuring Murray that the controversy “was a two-day story’’ that would “blow over.’’ McLaughlin urged Murray to “stay out of it and not come to [his] aid,’’ said a person with direct knowledge who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

“He was adamant that Murray should stay out of it and that he could make it go away,’’ this person said.

But the controversy did not go away, and McLaughlin resigned on Nov. 3 under pressure from Patrick.

Murray declined to be interviewed about his relationship with McLaughlin, but he said in a prepared statement that the former Chelsea housing director was “a supporter’’ and said he felt betrayed when he learned about McLaughlin’s compensation, which may be the highest of any US public housing official.

“Mike McLaughlin was a supporter and volunteer during my campaign in 2006,’’ wrote Murray, referring to his first campaign for lieutenant governor. “Since then, I stayed in touch with him, as I do with many of the people who volunteered for me and with local officials across the state.

“Like most everyone else, I had no idea how high Mike McLaughlin’s salary was or that he was misleading the state about it for years, which is outrageous and unacceptable. When we discovered that, this administration took swift and decisive action. I support and am proud of our response to date, and we’re going to continue to investigate what happened at the Chelsea Housing Authority,’’ he wrote.

Murray said that he is “frustrated’’ on a “personal level’’ because of what he has learned about someone with whom he thought he had a “straightforward relationship.’’

The FBI and several other state and federal agencies are investigating McLaughlin and the housing authority amid allegations that employees shredded and removed documents around the time of McLaughlin’s resignation. On his last day, McLaughlin cosigned checks for more than $200,000 to himself for what he said were unused vacation, sick, and personal days - though the records that would confirm that have been destroyed.

McLaughlin almost immediately applied for a state pension that would be the largest in state history, based on his income. Yesterday, the Chelsea Retirement Board tabled discussion of McLaughlin’s application for a $278,000 pension after the attorney general warned the board that McLaughlin may not be entitled to the money.

McLaughlin was much more than just an ordinary supporter and volunteer for Murray, according to several Merrimack Valley politicians with direct knowledge of the relationship who asked not to be named because of fear of retaliation. He was a key operative in 2006 as Murray, then the mayor of Worcester, built a statewide organization, according to these people, and McLaughlin acted as master of ceremonies for Murray fund-raisers more than once.

“He’s the lieutenant governor’s guy in the Merrimack Valley,’’ said one political figure “Everyone knows that.’’

McLaughlin liked to brag to colleagues that “Murray needed him’’ for “putting together little deals’’ such as finding jobs for supporters, said a person who heard McLaughlin make those remarks but asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation.

McLaughlin was in touch on the phone with Murray more than anyone else, based on an analysis of 12 high-call-volume days when McLaughlin and Murray connected 41 times. McLaughlin typically was in contact with Murray three times a week over the seven months of the records, even calling Murray while McLaughlin was vacationing in Naples, Fla.

McLaughlin, his wife, and two children have donated $3,725 to Murray since 2006, though the Murray campaign late last night announced that they were returning some of the money.

A spokesman for Murray’s political committee said the $900 McLaughlin contributed to Murray was donated to the Chelsea Boys & Girls Club in light of McLaughlin’s “deception’’ in not revealing his actual compensation. Cohen said an additional $700 donated by two Chelsea Housing Authority board members was also sent to the club. Murray’s committee has kept the rest of the McLaughlin money.

Several sources said they believe Murray helped McLaughlin’s son Matthew obtain a $60,000-a-year job in 2008 as a member of the Board of Appeals, which hears appeals from drunk drivers who have lost their licenses - despite the concerns of the state Registrar of Motor Vehicles at the time, Anne Collins.

Collins worried about hiring Matthew McLaughlin because of his lengthy driving record that included a license suspension for refusing to take a breathalyzer and six speeding tickets, according to McLaughlin’s driving record and a source with direct knowledge of the appointment. But Collins felt she had no choice but to hire him, according to someone with knowledge of the appointment.

Matthew boasts that Murray is his “godfather,’’ according to former co-workers, and takes advantage of the connection to spend a lot of his time elsewhere. He has posted photos from Florida on his Facebook page when he was scheduled to hear some of the tens of thousands of cases before the Board of Appeals, the former co-workers said.

Frustrated officials complained directly to Murray, but McLaughlin’s work habits did not improve, said former co-workers.

Neither Michael McLaughlin nor his son, Matthew, returned calls from the Globe.

In a transcript from an interview with the Lowell Sun earlier this month, Murray said he knew Matthew McLaughlin, but would not say whether he recommended him to Collins.

“We get lots of people seeking jobs and referrals,’’ he said. “We referred it out and it’s up to whoever the hiring entity is to make the decision.’’

More generally, Murray campaign spokesman Michael Cohen denied that McLaughlin played a major role in Murray’s political operation.

Asked whether Murray was aware that McLaughlin has a long history of attracting controversy and investigations dating back to his days as a Middlesex County Commissioner in the 1980s, Murray campaign spokesman Cohen said: “We have had thousands of supporters and volunteers over the years. We don’t know the personal histories of them all.’’

McLaughlin’s cellphone records, obtained in a public information request, cover the period from March 29 to October 27 and do not cover the period after McLaughlin’s salary became public and his agency was engulfed in controversy. However, sources with direct knowledge of McLaughlin’s actions at the authority say that McLaughlin’s contacts with the lieutenant governor continued.

But Patrick administration spokesman Brendan Ryan said just because McLaughlin had contact with Murray doesn’t mean he found sympathy.

Murray “doesn’t like people taking advantage of his friendship,’’ said Ryan.

Matt Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com. Sean Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.

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