In a sleepy municipal election year, a divisive political battle has consumed Dorchester, where two candidates from opposite ends of the neighborhood are fighting for an open seat on the Boston City Council. Vicious rumors have circulated about both candidates, designed to undercut their qualifications to represent the neighborhood.
A thorough examination of public records - including criminal files, civic lawsuits, divorce proceedings, driving histories, voting habits, land records, and tax ledgers - found that some of the rumors are more than idle gossip.
One candidate, Frank Baker, had a serious enough arrest in 1993 that he was indicted by a Suffolk County grand jury. Baker pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute for what police described as three “large bags of marijuana’’ and an unspecified amount of cash. Asked in a recent interview if he ever sold marijuana, Baker said, “No.’’
“People should be looking at who is standing in front of them now, not a 25-year-old kid,’’ Baker said. “I wouldn’t have been voting for myself when I was 25.’’
The other candidate, John K. O’Toole, had repeatedly fallen behind on his Boston property taxes. Tax officials have taken the first step in filing a lien against one of O’Toole’s properties, because he still owed $1,531 from 2010.
Following questions by the Globe last week, O’Toole said that he paid his city bill on Friday. But he also owes more than $22,000 in back income taxes to the state and federal government, according to tax bills included in his divorce file in Suffolk County probate court.
“I’m running a household by myself with three kids,’’ O’Toole said, adding that he had arranged payment plans for the back income taxes. “I’m feeling the challenges that a lot of families are feeling.’’
Once his divorce is finalized, O’Toole said he plans to sell the condominium he and his wife own on Ashmont Street to settle all of their tax debts.
Both candidates downplay their legal troubles and say the focus on such issues has distracted from the broader needs of the district they hope to represent. Each is vying to replace outgoing incumbent Maureen Feeney in District 3, a diverse slice of the city that runs from Dorchester Bay to the Neponset River.
Baker, 44, grew up as one of 13 children in Savin Hill, in northern Dorchester. Baker worked in Boston’s municipal printing plant, but he lost his job after it closed in 2010. As a printer for 25 years, Baker said he developed relationships in City Hall that will help him get things done as a city councilor.
“It seems like a real nuts-and-bolts, constituent service type of job, which I think I would be good at,’’ said Baker, who coached youth sports and served for a year as vice president of the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association. “I think my personality suits itself to building bridges. I can reach out to a lot of people.’’
O’Toole, 47, a third generation Dorchester resident has been active in the Cedar Grove Civic Association for several decades, including a 14-year stint as its president. He said his accomplishments included helping push to reclaim land for the Neponset River bike path and stopping Pep Boys from building a 12-bay oil change facility in Adams Corner.
“My end game was never politics,’’ O’Toole said. “But I submit to the voters to compare our [qualifications]. Compare the timelines of dedication to this neighborhood.’’
Feeney held the District 3 seat for almost two decades, winning election in 1993, when it was vacated by her boss, Councilor James E. Byrne. Baker and O’Toole advanced to the final election on Nov. 8 by winning the most votes in a seven-candidate preliminary election in September.
Beyond neighborhood alliances, each candidate has the backing of a Boston political heavyweight. O’Toole has received broad support from Feeney and the political organization of Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Baker’s staunchest advocate has been his grammar school classmate, Dorchester state Representative Martin J. Walsh, who is also secretary treasurer of the Boston Building Trades Council.
In its extensive public records check, the Globe scrutinized both candidates equally.
Baker and O’Toole, for example, both have excellent voting records. But both men have also been the target of unflattering civil lawsuits concerning their businesses. Baker was sued by his niece when the family owned the Avenue Grille on Dorchester Avenue. O’Toole, a former licensed plumber who is now in real estate, has been sued more than once by his former business partners, including a case still pending in civil court.
A comprehensive criminal record check shows that O’Toole has never been arrested as an adult. He did acknowledge being ticketed once for underage drinking as a juvenile.
Police first arrested Baker when he was 24, on March 30, 1992, in Dorchester, and charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol. He was found not guilty, but the charge remains on his driving record as required by state law.
On June 2, 1992, police pulled over Baker at 2:50 a.m. because he was weaving in a Lincoln Continental with no headlights. Court records state that Baker had a half-burned marijuana cigarette, but charges of drug possession and operating under the influence of drugs and alcohol were ultimately dismissed.
Baker’s final and most serious arrest came on April 30, 1993, when State Police pulled over a 1985 Mercury on Old Colony Avenue in South Boston, not far from Perkins Elementary School. Police arrested Baker and two other men, William Ryan and Peter G. Davenport.
“At that point, I had just lost a brother a month earlier to a heroin overdose and was kind of going through a difficult time on my own at that point,’’ Baker told the Globe this week. “I was numbing my pain that I was going through. But somebody wants to make up stories about this for whatever reason.’’
Court records show that police found cash and the three large bags of marijuana in the car. However, the records do not include a police report or indicate exactly how much marijuana or money were found. In an interview, Baker described the arrest as a “routine traffic stop’’ in which police confiscated “a couple hundred bucks.’’ Baker said he did not remember how much marijuana police seized.
The amount of marijuana could be significant. Baker and his codefendants were arraigned in district court, but the seemingly run-of-the-mill drug case was then brought before a grand jury, which on Feb. 24, 1994, indicted Baker and the other two men. It remains unclear why the case was elevated to Suffolk Superior Court.
Baker and the other two men arrested that day served two years probation after pleading guilty to one charge of possession with intent to distribute.