THE QUESTION with Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray was always this: Having ridden into office on Deval Patrick’s coattails, could the boyish Worcester pol grow into someone voters could see as governor?
These last few months have provided a preliminary answer: No. Instead, Murray’s activities have created enduring questions about his judgment.
I don’t mean his early morning car accident, which occurred during a supposed coffee-run-and-storm-damage-inspection-drive. Unless something further surfaces, Murray, who asked for and passed a breathalyzer test, deserves the benefit of the doubt on that.
But he doesn’t deserve any such benefit on his troubling relationship with Michael McLaughlin, a scheming, manipulative, greedy, public-trust-abusing practitioner of old-style politics. For anyone familiar with McLaughlin, the Globe exposé reporting that he was collecting an astounding $360,383 as executive director of the Chelsea Housing Authority - and lying to the state about it - was absolutely no surprise. McLaughlin has since resigned, but not before ordering an underling to issue him more than $200,000 he claimed to be owed for supposedly unused sick, vacation, and personal time. Stop orders were put on those checks, but again, not before McLaughlin cashed one for more than $80,000. Federal investigators probing the housing authority have found that records necessary to determine whether McLaughlin really worked that extra time have been destroyed. (Imagine that!)
A hint at the Murray-McLaughlin alliance came in the late summer controversy over an effort, apparently engineered by McLaughlin, to oust the well-regarded executive director of the housing authority in Dracut, where he dwells. Enabled by a Murray-pushed appointment to the authority board, that effort imploded after a public uproar.
But last week, readers got a fuller picture of the Murray-McLaughlin relationship. The Globe reported that the two had called each other more than 80 times over the last seven months. And that Murray had recommended McLaughlin’s son Matthew for a $60,000 job on the state board that considers appeals from people who have lost their licenses, often as a result of drunk driving. That referral came even though Matthew McLaughlin’s own checkered driving record includes a license suspension for refusing a breathalyzer.
All this opens a window on Murray’s political activities as he plots his own run for governor. He has, knowledgeable sources say, concentrated on socking away loyalists and cultivating allies at the many housing authorities across the state. This fairly defines small-minded politics. Add in his association with McLaughlin, an ethically challenged dinosaur from a different era, and Murray looks like an exemplar of the crony-based patronage politics voters are sick to death of.
When I spoke to him on Friday, the lieutenant governor portrayed McLaughlin as just one of his Middlesex County supporters. But that’s an obvious attempt at distancing himself from disaster. “They were as tight as you can get,’’ said one north of Boston legislator.
Murray also claimed to be unaware of McLaughlin’s reputation.
“We don’t run background checks on everyone that works in our campaign or donates or volunteers,’’ he said. “In retrospect, I wish I had known more, obviously.’’
Now, pleading ignorance - which is to say, political incompetence - hardly inspires confidence, even if such an explanation were credible. This one is not.
“I know of more than one instance where the lieutenant governor has been warned about the hazards of being associated with Mike McLaughlin,’’ said one former Middlesex County elected official, something others confirm.
Nor is this the first time Murray has been embarrassed by a dubious alliance. Back in 2008, after the Globe made inquiries, he severed ties with Robert Platt, a controversial Beacon Hill lobbyist and political hanger-on who had become a key member of his fundraising team - and whose appointment to the Falmouth Housing Authority Murray helped arrange.
The emerging portrait of Tim Murray, then, is not of someone growing in office. Instead, it’s of a man who seems to be shrinking before our very eyes.
Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.