Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray strongly denied yesterday that there was anything improper in his relationship with the former Chelsea Housing Authority director who resigned abruptly after the Globe revealed he was making $360,000 a year.
Murray and Michael E. McLaughlin, the former Chelsea housing director, called each other 83 times in the past seven months, McLaughlin’s cellphone records show, including several calls after the Globe began asking questions about McLaughlin’s salary, which he had reported to the state was only $160,000.
Speaking before an annual ceremony to recognize police bravery at the State House, Murray and his boss, Governor Deval Patrick, insisted that Murray was only doing his job in talking to McLaughlin.
“Part of my portfolio is working with local officials, elected and appointed and others,’’ said Murray. “I have dozens of phone calls on a day-to-day basis with lots of officials across the state, including Mr. McLaughlin.’’
Murray said he was outraged to learn McLaughlin’s true salary, which may be the highest for any public housing official in the United States.
McLaughlin “was a political supporter,’’ the lieutenant governor said.
“As I said, he’s someone on housing issues that I would talk to from time to time, but I was not aware of the full extent of his contract, like everyone else, until that Globe article appeared.’’ on Oct. 30, Murray told reporters. “He misled me. He misled other people. I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated, and I’m angry.’’
McLaughlin resigned Nov. 3 under pressure from Patrick, but not before cosigning checks to himself for more than $200,000 for what he said was unused vacation, sick, and personal time. However, the authority’s accountant has said he destroyed the payroll records that would have confirmed that McLaughlin was owed the money.
Now, the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into McLaughlin and the Chelsea Housing Authority, while Attorney General Martha Coakley is expected to petition a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Monday to appoint an outside receiver to oversee management of the authority.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development plans to recommend Judy Weber, a consultant on housing management issues, to serve as the Chelsea receiver. She previously worked for the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency. She was once an aide to the late J. Joseph Moakley, a longtime congressman from South Boston.
McLaughlin’s conduct has already inspired at least one legal change, a change in pension rules signed by Governor Patrick yesterday. McLaughlin has applied for the biggest public pension in state history, $278,000, based on his actual compensation. Under the new law, a retiring employee’s pension would be based on the salary reported to the state - in McLaughlin’s case, $160,000 - penalizing public employees who attempt to conceal their true income.
Coakley’s office has asked Chelsea retirement officials not to authorize any retirement payments to McLaughlin until the investigations are completed.
Records of McLaughlin’s housing authority cellphone, which cover the period from March 29 to Oct. 27, show that the men called each other about three times a week, including while McLaughlin was in Naples, Fla., where he owns a condo. Several Merrimack Valley politicians said the frequency of the calls reflect the fact that McLaughlin is one of Murray’s main political operatives north of Boston.
The records show that, on two occasions, McLaughlin called Murray within hours of being asked questions by a Globe reporter about his salary and efforts to conceal the true amount from state officials. A Murray campaign operative has said the lieutenant governor made no more calls to McLaughlin after the Globe reported his salary on Oct. 30.
Patrick stoutly defended his second in command, bristling when a reporter asked why the lieutenant governor would need to call a Chelsea housing official so frequently.
“Do you know how much phone tag we play around here?’’ Patrick asked. “We and, in particular, the lieutenant governor is in constant contact with local elected officials all around the Commonwealth. And let me tell you what I don’t like, what I don’t appreciate, is insinuation when there is nothing.’’
At the State House press event, Murray also denied that he had done anything improper in helping McLaughlin’s son, Matthew, get a job as a member of the the Registry of Motor Vehicles Board of Appeals, which hears appeals from drunk drivers who have lost their license.
Several sources told the Globe that Murray helped Matthew McLaughlin to obtain the $60,000-a-year job despite concerns about McLaughlin’s lengthy driving record, including a license suspension for refusing to take a breathalyzer test.
Former co-workers of the younger McLaughlin said that he referred to Murray as his “godfather,’’ something the lieutenant governor said yesterday that he had never heard before.
“We make referrals on a day-to-day basis,’’ said Murray, referring to the practice of recommending job candidates to other government agencies. “I never tell anyone to put a square peg in a round hole. It’s up to the people making decisions to decide whether someone is qualified or not, and then, from there, are they doing their job?’’
At one point during the four-minute discussion of Murray’s Hrelationship with McLaughlin, Patrick put his hand on Murray’s shoulder, eased him out of the way, and stepped in front of the cameras and microphones to defend him against against some of the criticisms in yesterday’s Globe.
The story included unnamed sources who said Murray continued to advise McLaughlin after the Globe reported his true salary and the governor had called for McLaughlin’s resignation, complaining he was “boiling’’ mad at the news.
“I do not believe in guilt by association,’’ said Patrick. “This is a fabulous lieutenant governor who runs to work every day to do the best he can by the people of the Commonwealth. I am proud of him, and I am proud to serve with him. And the Chelsea Housing Authority executive director who breached the public’s trust has some consequences, and he should.’’
But Massachusetts Republicans said that Murray has some explaining to do, both about his relationship with McLaughlin and his serious car accident that occurred two days after the first Globe story on McLaughlin’s paycheck was published. Murray has said that his unmarked State Police cruiser rolled over at 5:30 a.m. after he hit a patch of ice while surveying damage from a fall snowstorm and fetching coffee and newspapers.
“There is a disturbing pattern here where the administration is doing everything they can to suppress information, while at the same time claiming that they have nothing to hide,’’ said Nate Little, executive director of MassGOP. “It is time for Tim Murray to come clean about these lingering questions.’’Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Johnson at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.