WOBURN — You would think voters in this city 12 miles north of Boston could do better than this:
With just a month remaining before a contested mayoral election, Woburnites face a troubling choice between an incumbent who has avoided questions about a 2011 crash in a city-owned car after he had consumed alcohol, and a wealthy challenger with a criminal record who allegedly threatened to kill a business partner “with a .38 to the head.”
Until now, Mayor Scott D. Galvin has presented himself as a champion of honest and open government while his opponent, John P. Flaherty, is campaigning as a wealthy philanthropist who “would like to give back” to the city where he grew up. But a Globe investigation reveals that both candidates have been keeping secrets that could damage their prospects at the ballot box.
Galvin, a two-term incumbent who was the top vote-getter in the September preliminary election, totaled his city-owned car on a rainy night two years ago on his way home from an event where he now admits he drank wine. He afterward failed to take a sobriety test, an apparent violation of city policy. The other driver was found at fault, but that was before Galvin conceded he had consumed alcohol before the accident.
Galvin initially insisted that he was exempt from the testing policy because he is an elected official, not a city employee. But on Friday Galvin admitted, “it would have been better if I had asked for a Breathalyzer test,”much the way Timothy Murray, former lieutenant governor, did after he crashed his state-owned vehicle shortly after Galvin’s accident.
Galvin’s admission on Friday that he “had a single glass of red wine over the course of several hours” at an event sponsored by the Woburn Business Association contradicts the only significant news account of the collision, in which the city’s police chief said Galvin “did not consume any alcohol” before the accident.
The secrets that challenger Flaherty has been keeping are also potentially damaging, as he readily acknowledged in a Globe interview. A successful business owner who received 32 percent of the votes cast in the September preliminary, Flaherty was found guilty of threatening to kill someone over the telephone in the 1990s, and was accused of delivering the same threat to a second person two years later, according to a sworn affidavit in a federal bankruptcy case.
Flaherty also pleaded guilty on behalf of his company in a 2000 federal bid-rigging case in New Hampshire, agreeing to have the company, ADA Fabricators, pay a $48,000 fine and serve two years of probation.
But Flaherty appeared relieved to be discussing his legal history during a nearly two-hour interview, frequently adding detail to the public record while saying he had considered airing this difficult history at an earlier stage of the campaign but was advised against it.
“I’m not trying to hide my past. And people should know what they’re getting,” he said.
Incredibly, the only other candidate who played a role in this year’s mayoral contest, Patrick M. Natale, former state representative and a Democrat, has also faced legal problems. In July, just two months before he was eliminated from contention in the preliminary election, Natale was charged with driving while intoxicated in New Hampshire. He said he is innocent and is awaiting a court date. The revelations about the mayoral candidates are certain to raise questions about the level of scrutiny they received over the course of a six-month campaign and about Woburn’s failure to attract candidates of greater integrity.
Questions may also be raised about the local news media’s scant coverage of the mayor’s Oct. 19, 2011, collision, in which his city-owned car collided with another vehicle in the center of this city of 38,000.
In the only substantive article, which appeared in the Daily Times Chronicle a week after the accident, Police Chief Robert J. Ferullo Jr., said, “I was with the mayor at the WBA event and can tell you he did not consume alcohol.” And Galvin, during an initial Globe interview, pointed to the news account to prove the accident was not newsworthy.
But Ferullo, in an interview with the Globe, backed away from his 2011 statement to the local newspaper, saying he could not recall whether the mayor was drinking on the night of the accident. He insisted, however, that he did not see alcohol at a table where he and the mayor were sitting.
“I didn’t see alcohol at the table. I’m pretty observant,” he said.
Some may also question whether the salary for Woburn’s mayor — $73,000, which is on the low end of the pay scale for a city of Woburn’s size — is enough to lure top-flight candidates. But Nicholas Paleologos, former Woburn state representative, said the main deterrent to high-quality candidates running for local office is not money, but the increasingly combative nature of politics.
“The electoral process is such that your opponent has every incentive to throw everything at you but the kitchen sink, and it’s all fair game,” said Paleologos, now the executive director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. “Now, if you’re coming out of college with any skills, politics is the last thing you think of. You say, ‘Let somebody else do that.’ ”
Even now, voters have an alternative to Galvin and Flaherty: They can write in the name of another contender. Write-in campaigns — also known as sticker campaigns — are generally considered long-shot affairs. But Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy of Lynn prevailed in a write-in campaign in that city’s 2009 preliminary election and ousted an incumbent mayor in the final.
Following Galvin’s accident, the insurance company for the other driver, Wendy Zouinka, paid more than $11,000 to the City of Woburn, placing blame for the accident on her. At the intersection of Main, Winn, and Pleasant streets, where the collision occurred, Galvin faced a blinking yellow light, while Zouinka confronted a stop sign and blinking red light.
Galvin contends that Zouinka ran the stop sign and the blinking red. But Zouinka, a Malden teacher, said she came to a stop before turning into the intersection. Then, she was “struck by a car that literally came out of nowhere and was flying [traveling at a high speed],” her statement said.
Questions about the role alcohol may have played in the collision would have been easily answered if Galvin had followed a city policy that “requires drug and alcohol tests for any employee involved in an accident while driving or operating a city vehicle.”
On Friday, Galvin said it did not occur to him to request a Breathalyzer test and relied on police at the scene — including Chief Ferullo, who said he happened upon the accident on his way home — to “walk me through the necessary reporting and procedural steps.”
And Ferullo, in his Globe interview, took the blame for failing to notify the mayor of the required alcohol and drug testing, noting that he had been on the job less than a month.
“Blame it on me for not being familiar with the rules,” he said. “I was 19 days on the job.”
But Galvin has tried to squelch public conversation about the crash. He even stormed into a May 31, 2012, City Council meeting where Alderman Richard F. Gately Jr. was raising questions about the collision and angrily took him aside, repeatedly calling him a “loser,” according to Gately, during an exchange that nearly resulted in blows.
“He raised his fist like he was going to hit me,” Gately said. “Then I said, ‘I hope you know how to use those, Scotty, because I do.’ ”
Galvin admitted he consumed alcohol before his accident only after the Globe interviewed state Representative James J. Dwyer, who was sitting at Galvin’s table at the Woburn Business Association event and told the Globe he saw the mayor with a glass of wine.
“As far as I know, the mayor had a glass of red wine,” Dwyer said. “I had dinner and I saw one glass of wine in front of the mayor.”
Galvin also resisted explaining why, on the day after the crash, his damaged car was taken to the backyard of the city’s acting superintendent of public works, Thomas “Tucker” Quinn, where it was photographed by an insurance adjuster before being salvaged.
Eventually, Galvin explained in a letter to the Globe that the car was taken from the public works yard to Quinn’s home “to prevent gawkers and onlookers from interfering in the process” of assessing damage to the vehicle. In a second letter, Galvin said public works officials had followed the same procedure with other “high profile” city cars that have been involved in accidents, but said he has told public works officials “that this practice should end.”
Flaherty, in his Globe interview, said that nearly all of his court battles were the product of a hard-charging, self-made man’s attempt to succeed in business without financial resources or a college education.
“Was there any violence? Was there any jail time? Did I run down the street with your TV? No. It’s all business-related,” Flaherty said.
Today, Flaherty is president of ADA Solutions, a Billerica-based company that produces tiles that are typically used in transit stations and curb cuts at busy street intersections to warn the visually impaired that they are approaching traffic.
In recent years, his success has allowed him to donate more than $1 million for a contemporary war veterans’ memorial, tennis courts at the local high school, and an accessible ramp at the school’s stadium, among other gifts.
But in 1994, when Flaherty was working as a property manager, he was convicted of threatening over the phone to kill a man from whom he was trying to collect back rent.
“He would egg me on,” recalled Flaherty, who admits he was aggressive with the man. “I got a little mouthy on the phone with him and he said I threatened to kill him, which I didn’t do.”
Many of his early court battles, Galvin said, erupted from his days in the rough and tumble rendering business, where small-time operators battled for turf in the collection of deep fryer grease from restaurants for resale to companies that converted it into other products. Flaherty said that picking up grease on a competitor’s route or delaying payment to a restaurant was common, but sometimes resulted in criminal charges of theft — and, in Flaherty’s case, two convictions that he can recall.
Even as Flaherty began to taste success, his tactics continued to land him in court. After filing for bankruptcy in 1995 and having more than $250,000 in debts forgiven, his case was reopened when a bankruptcy trustee accused Flaherty of concealing his interest in a profitable tile company, hiding wealth that could have been used to pay off creditors.
The trustee also accused Flaherty of making unauthorized cash withdrawals from the company and obtained an injunction barring Flaherty from entering the premises, writing checks, or threatening company officials.
Flaherty’s partner in the firm, Stacey Arbetter, said Flaherty threatened to kill her after she tried to stop him from writing checks to himself and taking other actions that she said damaged the company. “If you try to remove me from this company, I will take care of you with a .38 to the head,” Flaherty said to her, according to Arbetter’s affidavit.
Flaherty denied making the threat, but Arbetter stood by her earlier statement. “Everything in my affidavit is totally accurate and completely true. I stand by it 100 percent,” she said.
Though Galvin now believes he should have taken a Breathalyzer test at the scene of his accident, he offered no apologies for how he handled the case.
Flaherty acknowledged that the revelations about his past could hurt his campaign, and he seemed at peace.
“You can make me or break me when you write this,” he said. “Hopefully, you’ll go easy on me.”
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RezGlobe.