Friday was Greg Sullivan’s last day as the Inspector General for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and not many Beacon Hill fixtures were heartbroken at the news. That might be the finest testament to his remarkable run as chief watchdog of the public purse.
By law, Sullivan has to leave after two five-year terms in office. His departure caps a public career that began 37 years ago, when he was elected to the Legislature during his senior year in college.
His time as IG will probably always be best known for his role in unearthing the scandal that landed House Speaker Sal DiMasi in federal prison. It was investigators for the IG’s office who caught the inexplicably large contract to a little-known software developer called Cognos. By the time the investigation was over, DiMasi - arguably the most powerful politician in Massachusetts, had become the third consecutive speaker indicted while in office.
But that investigation was just one of many that Sullivan’s office pursued, unearthing shady deals, wasteful spending, and shoddy practices that stood to cost Massachusetts taxpayers millions. Excessive spending on school construction became a running crusade.
Sullivan himself became something of a Beacon Hill fixture — if a career outsider can be so described — almost by accident. He was wrapping up his undergraduate degree at Harvard when he was summoned home to Norwood by his mother.
“I grew up in a family of 10 children, and she and I never just sat down by ourselves,” he recalled this week. “She cooked dinner for me only and told me our state representative was retiring and I should run for the office. ‘You can go door to door and win’ she told me.”
Patricia Sullivan mother was a long-time liberal activist, and she and her son Greg spent the summer of 1974 knocking on doors. He won 1,380 votes, besting a field of seven. At 22, he was one of the youngest state representatives in Massachusetts history.
Sullivan had majored in government in college, but his education was just beginning. Shortly after he was sworn in, Vinny Piro, the infamous House whip from Somerville, called him in to tell him the speaker needed his vote for large tax increase. Sullivan said that as a candidate he promise who do no such thing.
“We all said that when we ran!” an incredulous Piro informed him. Thus did Sullivan discover that real-life politics didn’t operate exactly as they taught it at Harvard.
He spent 18 years in the House before joining the inspector general’s office in 1992; he took the top job 10 years later. The post, created in the wake of a huge construction scandal during the building of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is unique in state government. The IG is jointly appointed by the governor, the attorney general, and the state auditor.
Unafflicted by the prevailing suspicion of journalists on Beacon Hill, Sullivan has often hired former reporters as investigators, several of whom have played major roles in developing key cases, including the one that brought down DiMasi. “That was one of my innovations,” he said proudly. “They were the most particular about every single fact, which was a big learning experience for me,” he said. “And they write beautifully.”
Sullivan is barred from seeking office for three years, and seems to have little interest in attempting to return to politics. Actually, he doesn’t know what he will do, though it may involve teaching. He also has an interest in looking into Medicaid spending, the subject of the last major report of his tenure.
He leaves a legacy of taking on business as usual at the State House, and of holding the powerful accountable. Through it all, he has avoided cynicism. “Despite all the wrongdoing we uncovered and all the waste we pointed out, I still believe that most people who work for the state are good people,” he said.