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Veteran’s campaign hits bump with plea

By Alan Wirzbicki
Globe Staff / October 7, 2010

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SALEM — When you are running for reelection, having your wife plead guilty to abetting tax evasion is not the kind of news you want a month before voters go to the polls.

But that is where US Representative John F. Tierney, Democrat of Salem, now finds himself as he campaigns for an eighth term against a controversial but energetic Republican opponent, Bill Hudak.

Even as state Republicans tried to capitalize on Tierney’s troubles yesterday, many voters in the Sixth Congressional District seemed to be reserving judgment about their man in Washington and whether the guilty plea yesterday by his wife, Patrice, would resonate politically. Some voters displayed sympathy for Tierney, while others were highly critical.

Patrice Tierney pleaded guilty in US District Court in Boston to managing a bank account that her brother allegedly used to deposit more than $7 million in illegal gambling profits. She will be sentenced in January. John Tierney said that both he and his wife had been betrayed by his wife’s brother and that he had been unaware of the particulars of the account.

That explanation did not satisfy some constituents.

“If that happened right under his nose in his own household, what’s he missing in Washington?’’ said Tom Scioletti, 56, of Marblehead, who was walking to a meeting in Salem yesterday afternoon. “I’m serious.’’

But David Lettvin, 62, a writer from Hamilton who was checking out a pile of books from the library in Beverly, said Tierney’s wife’s legal troubles would not affect his view of the representative.

“Why should it?’’ he said. “If I were to be held responsible for the stupid things my wife says, I’d be in trouble. So far as I’m concerned, you judge politicians on results.’’

Hudak, meanwhile, sought political mileage from the episode and challenged Tierney to detail what he knew about the bank account at the heart of the case. “I’d call on him to disclose what he knew and when,’’ said Hudak, a first-time candidate from Boxford who gained notoriety by comparing President Obama to Osama bin Laden and questioning the president’s birthplace. “Seven million dollars is a lot of money to pretend he knew nothing about.’’

Hudak was not the only state Republican seeking to draw attention to the plea. On Twitter, Jennifer Nassour, the chairwoman of the Massachusetts GOP, said the incident underscored the ethical problems among congressional Democrats. “I thought [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi was supposed to ‘clean up the swamp’?’’ she wrote.

Tierney has been seen as one of the safer incumbents in the Massachusetts delegation, and it remains unclear whether the developments of the last two days will have a serious impact on his reelection campaign.

In a brief phone interview after leaving the courthouse, Tierney struck back strongly at Hudak’s criticism and said he had nothing to do with the bank account.

“I know he would love to be running against my brother-in-law, but he doesn’t have that luxury,’’ Tierney said. “I think people will remember how hard I’ve worked for them. I think some people will take note that this has gone on, but I think people are smart enough to disassociate my wife’s family’s issues from me.’’

Tierney said he was broadly aware that his wife was helping his brother-in-law’s family, but said that he was not aware of specifics. “I knew she was helping them out, but I didn’t know the particulars,’’ he said.

Both candidates continued to campaign yesterday. Hudak toured two Danvers employers, Abiomed and M&H Engineering, while Tierney attended a Chamber of Commerce event with Governor Deval Patrick in the morning and a ribbon- cutting in Lynn for a housing development before spending much of the afternoon with his wife at the courthouse. The two candidates are scheduled to meet in debates today and again next week.

In interviews with voters across the rain-swept Sixth District yesterday, it was apparent that despite a tough political environment for Democrats and yesterday’s developments, Tierney retained a reservoir of good will among voters.

At a Gloucester supermarket, Joan Ross Cummiskey, 78, a retired nurse, said that she saw Tierney several times a year in the district or during her visits to Washington and had been impressed. “I love him,’’ she said. “He responds very well to all my letters.’’

Patrice Tierney’s plea was troubling, Cummiskey said, but did not change her mind. “I think it’s very unfortunate,’’ she said. “But people make mistakes, and I’m glad she owned up to them.’’

Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at awirzbicki@globe.com.