George Regan has never been one to kid himself about the fickle nature of the spin business. But even he has to be a bit unnerved by the blowback he has gotten over the past two weeks.
Regan, of course, is the high-powered public relations operative who backed the ouster of Margaret McKenna from the presidency of his alma mater, Suffolk University. The plan to fire her, at one point reportedly backed by a majority of the Suffolk board of trustees, was seen as paving the way for former attorney general Martha Coakley to take over the presidency.
The plan’s unraveling was dramatic. The city rallied around McKenna, Coakley dropped out of consideration, and Regan and his machinations became a story.
The consequences for Regan are still unfolding. In the latest development, the University of Massachusetts Building Authority plans to end its $10,000-a-month contract with his firm. That comes on the heels of Suffolk’s decision to cancel a contract with Regan that paid him nearly $400,000 in fiscal 2014.
The $10,000 a month that UMass pays Regan’s firm represents a significant amount of work for the university’s Building Authority, an important but boring UMass bureaucracy in charge of building and repairing campus property. Sure, the authority announces the occasional groundbreaking or bond rating upgrade, but it’s hard to imagine it needs $10,000-a-month worth of public relations apparatus. Yet that’s what it has had — until now.
“The amount was too high and I think the UMass team can handle that work themselves,” Building Authority chairman Philip Johnston told me Sunday. “That’s why we decided to handle it in-house.”
Regan has held a contract with the authority since 2011. The deal was first struck when Regan’s friend Robert Sheridan — a member of the Suffolk University Board, and retired chairman of insurance giant SBLI — chaired the Building Authority board. It has since been extended a couple of times. Someone with direct knowledge of the situation told me that canceling the contract had been considered before, but UMass lawyers believed the school would have had to pay Regan the balance anyway.
Although Regan’s influence at Suffolk was hard to fathom, the UMass deal is no less problematic. It’s public money, for one thing. Also, UMass is perpetually dealing with fiscal woes. Regan’s firm has been paid over $500,000 since his contract began in 2011, and it isn’t hard to think of a lot of better uses for that cash.
Johnston, appointed to the board in 2009, told me Sunday he wasn’t even aware it had a contract with Regan for several years, and he doesn’t think the other board members were, either. That is downright bizarre, yet believable.
Regan’s recent bad fortune has captivated the town’s movers and shakers, which is no surprise. Regan is alternately hard-charging, congenial, secretive, and charming. It’s not so much that there are camps of supporters and detractors; rather, he inspires broad, deep mixed feelings. I enjoy George, yet I can’t fathom how he ended up having so much say over running Suffolk University. Clearly, McKenna’s standoff with him has emboldened others to reconsider their relationships.
The last shoe may not have dropped, either. UMass Online has a $3,500-a-month contract with Regan that may be under review, too.
At the risk of being overly optimistic, I believe that the fallout from the Suffolk fiasco will force change in the way business is conducted in Boston. The common denominator here, besides Regan himself, is that these were all back-room deals. The McKenna firing fell apart as soon as it became public knowledge. Perhaps what’s taking a hit here is the whole culture of secret deals that can’t withstand scrutiny.
This is about more than George Regan; it’s about a small, interwoven network of guys in suits, so accustomed to keeping the public at bay that most of us don’t even know enough to protest.