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Chelsea’s housing boss was rarely on the job

Just 15 full days in town this year, records show

By Sean P. Murphy and Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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Michael E. McLaughlin, who abruptly resigned as Chelsea housing director last month after his $360,000 salary was revealed, put in only 15 full workdays in Chelsea all year to earn his extraordinary paycheck, according to a Globe review of his work cellphone records.

The phone records are like a diary of McLaughlin’s work life, painting a picture of an executive who was constantly on the phone but rarely stayed long in the city where he managed low-income housing. The records show he didn’t go to Chelsea at all on almost half the working days in 2011, spending 47 weekdays in Maine and Florida with his top assistant and close personal friend, Linda Thibodeau. He spent another 21 work days at out-of-state conferences from Phoenix to Miami, usually with Thibodeau.

“The office was just a place [McLaughlin] stopped to delegate to everyone what to do,’’ said one housing authority employee who asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “He would come in 9:45 a.m. and out by 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. . . . ‘I’m meeting a guy in Methuen.’ There was always a meeting for lunch or coffee.’’

Yet McLaughlin still portrayed himself as a workhorse, claiming to take so little vacation that he was eligible to sell back unused time to the authority. On the day he resigned, McLaughlin cosigned a check to himself for $81,578 for unused vacation time, a payment that would be legitimate under the terms of his contract only if he had limited himself to four vacation days annually since 2003.

McLaughlin also claimed that he almost never got sick - he reported 3.5 hours of sick time in almost 12 years - an iron constitution that led him to write a check to himself for another $114,237 on his last day as payment for years of unused sick time.

The revelations about McLaughlin’s lax work habits and questionable payments for unused vacation and sick time come amid burgeoning state and federal investigations of the housing authority, which has been taken over by a state receiver in the wake of McLaughlin’s departure and the resignation of the entire board of directors.

The FBI is investigating whether McLaughlin, a former state legislator and longtime Democratic powerbroker, illegally diverted federal funds to his own use. State housing officials tried to stop payment on the checks written to McLaughlin on his last day, but he had already cashed the one for unused vacation time.

“These are disturbing allegations,’’ said Greg Bialecki, secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, in a prepared statement. He said the fact that McLaughlin spent so little time in Chelsea and still claimed to take almost no vacation “further indicates that our efforts to remove the former executive director and board members were the right thing to do.’’

Record-keeping at the authority was often shoddy: McLaughlin kept track of dozens of unused days off he claimed to have accumulated in 2011 on hand-scrawled sheets that are virtually indecipherable. The problem was compounded by the fact that the authority’s accountant shredded weekly timesheets that would have shown the work schedule of McLaughlin and others.

But Verizon Wireless cellphone bills, which report the location of each call based on the nearest cellphone tower, provide a detailed substitute for the destroyed timesheets. In urban Eastern Massachusetts, callers are seldom more than a mile from the nearest tower, meaning that bills accurately identify the town or city for all calls except those along municipal boundaries.

For a heavy cellphone user like McLaughlin, the phone bills track his movements by the hour.

For example, on Friday, April 1, McLaughlin could not have arrived in Chelsea until sometime after 9:38 a.m. because records show he was in Reading at that moment checking his voicemail and his earlier calls were all outside of the city. Over the next three hours, McLaughlin made or received eight calls from within Chelsea. But, by 2:42 p.m., McLaughlin was placing calls from Andover where Thibodeau has a condo - and from where she was also placing calls that day. McLaughlin remained in Andover for the rest of the day, phone records show.

Based on the time between his last call before arriving in Chelsea and his first call after leaving, McLaughlin could have worked at his office no more than five hours on that day.

Taken together, out of 205 nonholiday weekdays between Jan. 1 and McLaughlin’s resignation, he was in Chelsea on 106 days, but he worked fewer than 7 hours on 91 of them. Most of the 15 full work days coincided with board meetings or inspections by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which consistently rated the authority a “high performer’’ during McLaughlin’s tenure.

In addition to spending limited time in Chelsea, McLaughlin made relatively few calls to his office or agency employees when he was outside the city. The 2011 phone records show that he called family and friends such as Methuen Housing Authority director Ken Martin the most, with Massachusetts political figures not far behind.

McLaughlin and Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray phoned each other more than 120 times this year, though the cellphone calls stopped after the Globe first disclosed McLaughlin’s huge salary - nearly twice the amount paid to New York City’s housing chief - in late October.

McLaughlin did not respond to requests for an interview and his attorney declined comment, but in the past McLaughlin has argued that he is a hard worker who earned every penny of his compensation, comparing himself with football legend Joe Montana as a public housing superstar. He said his family would sometimes go on vacation at one of the two Cape houses he owns while he remained behind, taking care of authority business.

“That’s just the way it was,’’ he said in an October interview.

But other housing officials say there are few reasons for a manager to be out of town as much as McLaughlin, who was perhaps the highest paid public housing official in the United States in 2011. Executives sometimes work from home or go to conferences, but their main responsibility is to the low-income people living in public housing in their community.

“As a local official, most of your duties are right within the jurisdiction of the agency you operate,’’ said Thomas J. Connelly Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

McLaughlin’s deputy, Thibodeau, kept a schedule remarkably similar to her boss, visiting Chelsea on fewer than half the work days in 2011 before she went on medical leave within days after his resignation. Originally hired by McLaughlin in 2001, she had worked her way up to a $99,000 salary, including a $10,000 extra stipend the board of directors gave her in 2009 for “added . . . duties’’ after another employee left.

She visited Naples, Fla., and coastal Maine at the same time as McLaughlin for more than nine weeks in 2011, according to the phone records. McLaughlin’s family owns a yellow stucco ranch house in Naples, located a few blocks from Vanderbilt Beach, a popular vacation destination. The house has an inground pool; there was a boat trailer in the side yard and a red Chrysler Sebring convertible in the driveway when a Globe reporter visited the property recently.

But Thibodeau didn’t put in for vacation during most of her time out of state, claiming that she took just 17 of her 25 permitted vacation days in 2011.

Thibodeau also traveled to conferences in New Orleans, Miami, and Phoenix at authority expense - always at the same time as her boss.

“You call her, she’s on vacation,’’ said a former Chelsea housing tenant, who said she repeatedly tried to contact Thibodeau about authority problems. “She’s never there. Tell me the housing [authority] has money for her to go on vacation.’’

Thibodeau did not return calls seeking comment, but McLaughlin has defended his deputy, while denying that he was having a romantic relationship with her.

“She’s a friend like all the other employees,’’ said McLaughlin, who is married.

As investigators pore over records and interview authority employees about the way McLaughlin ran the agency, a key issue will be whether McLaughlin took more money than even his generous contract allowed.

The five-member board of commissioners, handpicked by McLaughlin, repeatedly voted to boost his pay from $77,500 when he started in 2000 to the $360,000 he would have made had he worked until the end of 2011. Minutes show that the board routinely approved contract changes with nothing in writing to show them how much each change increased McLaughlin’s pay.

For instance, when the board approved a seemingly modest pay raise in 2009, the document did not make it clear to the board that it actually translated into a $35,000 hike, a big number during a time of recession.

Even with all that the board gave him, McLaughlin may have overreached, cosigning three checks to himself totaling more than $200,000 hours before he stepped down permanently on Nov. 3. In all three cases, McLaughlin’s rationale for receiving such largesse is highly suspect, the Globe review found.

First, McLaughlin claimed a huge reward for not taking vacations.

McLaughlin’s contract allowed him to sell back to the authority up to four weeks of unused vacation time each year, a provision worth about $25,000 in 2011. McLaughlin was also allowed to sell back any other unused vacation from his allotted six weeks’ vacation, though he would be paid for them only when he left the authority.

Records show that McLaughlin cashed in about 40 weeks of unused vacation over the last decade, but claimed that he still had 106 days that he could sell back when he stepped down, vacation time worth about $136,114. After taxes, that worked out to a check for $81,578.

To be eligible for such a big check, McLaughlin would have had to work virtually nonstop since taking the job, taking just 44 days of vacation in his entire career. McLaughlin’s phone records suggest he took more vacation than that during 2011 alone - 47 days.

McLaughlin had a similarly generous arrangement for selling back unused sick days, which he kept accumulating at the rate of 15 per year because he never called in sick. According to authority records, he didn’t take one hour in sick time from January 2000 until April 2011, giving him 180 days that he could cash in at the rate of $1,287 each.

Even after taxes and a voluntary reduction that McLaughlin directed the authority accountant to set aside for unspecified “expenses,’’ he still received a check for $114,237 for unused sick time when he quit. The state stopped payment on that check, pending an investigation into whether McLaughlin had earned it.

The third check McLaughlin received on his last day - $5,133 for what McLaughlin said was 6.3 days of unused personal time - does not appear to be allowed under his contract. McLaughlin’s contract specifically authorized selling unused vacation and sick time back to the authority, but said nothing about unused personal time, which is time off for which the employee does not have to give an explanation.

The state stopped payment on the $5,133 check as well, pending an investigation.

Making the last-minute checks more suspicious is the fact that the accountant who cut them with McLaughlin, James McNichols, has admitted shredding documents that might have proven whether McLaughlin had earned the money.

But the cellphone records provide striking testimony that McLaughlin may have been taking vacation, sick or personal time far more frequently than official records show.

McLaughlin and Thibodeau rarely put in for vacation when they visited Naples, Fla., but their calling pattern certainly did not seem like executives working from the road. For instance, McLaughlin made or received more than 200 calls on weekdays when he was in Naples from March 9 to March 20 this year, but fewer than one-quarter were to or from Chelsea.

He conducted other personal business by phone, calling credit card companies and financial institutions repeatedly. He called a toll-free number to learn how to download an app for the TV show “The X Factor.’’ McLaughlin also dabbled in real estate.

Joe Pelak, a Naples real estate agent, said he traded several calls with McLaughlin, whom he met at open houses and showed interest in buying one property.

“He ended up not doing it,’’ said Pelak. “But he was a real good guy, an awesome guy, just a real nice guy.’’

Globe correspondent Ben Wolford contributed to this report. Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

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