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Spotlight: 1971

A half-century ago, Somerville politics was a mess of no-bid construction contracts and cronyism

Mayor Joseph Curtatone recalls a series, long before his time in office, that was a “civic wake-up call” for higher ethical standards.

Staff

Spotlight Team: Timothy Leland (editor), Gerard O’Neill, Stephen A. Kurkjian, and Ann Desantis (researcher)


Somerville in the 1960s bore little resemblance to its current gentrified self. Populated largely by working-class immigrant families, the city faced heavy debt, soaring taxes, crumbling infrastructure, and a streak of alleged corruption that ran through multiple mayoral administrations. As tax rates rose throughout the state, Spotlight reporters wondered how all that money was being spent.

In Somerville’s case, the answer was not well at all, as Spotlight discovered during a three-month investigation. The problem was a law that exempted any city project under $1,000 from being put out to bid. This created a loophole that contractors with City Hall connections could exploit by splitting a big contract into many smaller ones, each under $1,000.

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That loophole was adding up to expensive headaches for taxpayers. One ex-con in the building business was awarded more than $777,000 in no-bid contracts; another business run by a former Department of Public Works commissioner racked up nearly $500,000 in projects.

In its six-part series, published in February 1971, Spotlight exposed politically connected contractors reaping millions in no-bid projects; hidden business relationships between public officials and private companies; moldering records stored in basement shoeboxes; office holders brazenly flouting conflict-of-interest laws; and other systemic abuses.

Pressed to explain one such shady deal, ex-mayor James Brennan said, “I don’t climb up on every roof every time somebody fixes a roof, and I don’t go into a room every time it’s painted.” Maybe, but he did go to trial on conspiracy charges.

When another public official was grilled about insurance contracts written by a company that he was associated with, he denied any ownership link — whereupon Spotlight published the articles of organization bearing his signature.

The fallout began immediately. Reform-minded Mayor Lester Ralph demanded all public documents related to no-bid work be impounded, then convened a special Town Meeting at which he fired his city auditor. (Angry residents showed up wearing “Spotlight” campaign-style buttons.) By August, 19 people and four companies had been indicted on 119 counts of conspiracy and theft. The group included the auditor, two former DPW commissioners, and three ex-mayors.

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Somerville would soon undergo major changes, driven by developments like the Red Line extension to Davis Square. Most indicted officials would eventually be acquitted. Still, in acknowledging the legal obstacles to securing conspiracy convictions, Superior Court Judge Francis Lappin noted that “not guilty” did not mean there wasn’t a problem. “It appears that someone broke the law over there,” he said.

The series, which won a Pulitzer Prize, ushered in a change within the Globe, too, where there had been some doubts that the Spotlight team was necessary. “It showed this model would work,” says founding Spotlight editor Timothy Leland. “Our earlier investigations were pretty good but not of that caliber. This one was something special.”

Current Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who is stepping down after 18 years in office, remembers the series as a civic “wake-up call,” saying it showed that higher ethical standards were urgently needed. Spotlight, Curtatone says, “didn’t just shed light on what was wrong, it motivated Mayor Ralph to focus on what needed to be done,” including professionalizing city offices and bringing more transparency to the awarding of contracts. “It emphasized the need for objective journalism to hold public officials accountable,” he says.

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