Prosecutors from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office questioned two Chelsea Housing Authority employees under oath this week about their political connections to Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, part of an intensifying criminal investigation into whether the housing agency’s former director illegally turned the workplace into a political machine aimed at helping Murray win election.
The employees, who are maintenance workers, testified that they attended three fund-raisers for Murray, giving $100 each time and meeting the lieutenant governor. One of them, Robert Hamilton, also said that former housing boss Michael E. McLaughlin asked him and other employees to help get out the vote for Murray and Governor Deval Patrick on Election Day in 2010.
“I didn’t want to go, but Mike [McLaughlin] said he wanted faces up there,” said Hamilton, referring to one of the fund-raisers. Hamilton, 69, said he has never been politically active and had only voted twice since 1968 before being recruited to help Murray.
So far, at least seven housing authority employees have been called before the state grand jury and several said the line of questioning has been consistent: “They asked how much did you donate, how were you asked, were you pressured, what would be the consequences if you did not?”
One employee, who testified earlier this summer and asked not to be named because grand jury proceedings are secret, said that prosecutors appeared to be using a spreadsheet of employees who donated to Murray.
Meanwhile, state housing officials confirm that they are investigating a separate allegation by another former employee who said McLaughlin harassed her for failing to carry out his political directives, such as an order to attend a rally for Murray and Patrick in Everett in 2006. Lori DiPlatzi has sent a demand letter threatening to file a federal lawsuit against the authority, contending that McLaughlin made her work life a “living hell” by making derogatory, sometimes sexually charged, remarks about her.
An attorney for McLaughlin and a spokesman for Murray declined comment.
McLaughlin, who was forced to resign last November after the Globe revealed his inflated $360,000 annual salary, was a political ally of Murray; the two men exchanged nearly 200 cellphone calls in 2010 and 2011. As an employee of an agency that receives federal funding, McLaughlin was not allowed under federal law to engage in any political activity on the job or conduct political fund-raising. Massachusetts law also prohibits fund-raising by appointed public officials such as McLaughlin and pressuring employees to take part in politics.
Murray has said that McLaughlin did not serve as a fund-raiser for him and, in January, asked state regulators to review his campaign finances for any improprieties. Officials at the Office of Campaign and Political Finance turned the case over to Coakley’s office for criminal investigation, one of several ongoing investigations of the Chelsea Housing Authority.
McLaughlin’s former employees have said in interviews that he pressured them to make political donations, attend rallies, and even cajole public housing residents to back McLaughlin’s preferred candidates, including Murray. They said McLaughlin pressured employees to quit when they did not do as they were told.
DiPlatzi, who worked as a housing manager from 2005 to 2008, has told housing authority officials that she finally resigned because McLaughlin became so hostile over her failure to help during political campaigns, including Murray’s first race for lieutenant governor in 2006.
“Starting in 2006, Ms. DiPlatzi and several of her colleagues were pressureed to attend various fund-raisers for then-candidates Deval Patrick and Tim Murray and new demands were made to frequently attend political rallies for Mssrs. Patrick and Murray,” wrote Jeffrey Turco, DiPlatzi’s lawyer, in a May 25 letter to Chelsea Housing officials threatening to file a federal discrimination lawsuit over the political pressures.
When DiPlatzi failed to attend a weekend rally for Murray and Patrick in Everett in 2006, she said that McLaughlin criticized her in front of the other employees. “You haven’t been much help lately,” McLaughlin said, according to the letter from Turco.
Turco wrote that McLaughlin pressured DiPlatzi to register to vote in Chelsea — even though she lives elsewhere — so that she could vote for a state Senate candidate supported by McLaughlin. When she refused, McLaughlin made her feel like she was not “part of the team,” according to Turco.
DiPlatzi said through her attorney that McLaughlin’s treatment of her descended into “off-color and downright offensive sexual jokes and innuendoes. . . Repeated comments about my dress and appearance made my time at the Chelsea Housing Authority a living hell.”
It is unclear whether Murray would face legal consequences even if prosecutors can prove that McLaughlin ran an illegal political operation on his behalf. Murray aides have said that McLaughlin was one among many campaign volunteers, even though he spoke numerous times with Murray’s lead professional fund-raiser, according to phone records. Chelsea employees say McLaughlin acted as a host at several Murray fund-raisers that Murray attended.
Murray, who was questioned by federal and state investigators working on the McLaughlin probe in June, has declined to say what he was asked about because investigators requested that the discussion remain confidential. Murray’s attorney, former US attorney Donald Stern, was present for the interview, a rare questioning of a top state official in a criminal investigation.
Murray has said that he broke with McLaughlin after learning that McLaughlin had deliberately concealed his $360,000 paycheck from state regulators, reporting that his income was less than half that amout. McLaughlin made more money than perhaps any other public housing official in the United States in 2011, even though cellphone records show he worked only 15 full days in Chelsea all year.
Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scott Allen can be reached at email@example.com.