State environmental chief refunded Mass. for personal flight
In the fall of 2016, a series of embarrassing revelations over staff misuse of state resources shook Governor Charlie Baker’s environmental agencies, prompting him to order suspensions and firings and to vow to move aggressively on future transgressions.
But, less than a month later, another potentially embarrassing problem emerged. An internal audit showed that Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton used taxpayer funds to pay for a round-trip plane ticket during his Florida vacation earlier that year.
It was a one-day journey to attend a press conference with Baker during which Beaton was driven in an unmarked, fully equipped environmental police vehicle by the department’s lieutenant colonel to get back and forth between the State House and Logan Airport, administration aides confirmed.
This questionable use of state resources and funds stayed below the public radar, never making it into the headlines — taken care of with Beaton’s quiet reimbursement for the credit card charges six months after he bought the ticket when it was discovered in an audit.
The Baker administration, after making headlines with its tough disciplinary action weeks earlier, said nothing publicly at the time.
Beaton spokesman Peter Lorenz said the secretary’s credit card charges were discovered in an “overall review of EEA’s operations” and that “improper charges were identified and fully reimbursed last year.” He said the review was not prompted by the controversies that gripped the environmental agencies just weeks earlier.
“The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs takes great care of taxpayer resources and does not tolerate spending that does not execute essential state business,’’ Lorenz said.
He added that the Baker administration also “implemented more stringent guidelines for all agencies to eliminate spending that stipulates credit cards cannot be used to purchase meals or food, and cannot be utilized to purchase anything travel-related.”
Beaton, through a spokesperson, declined to be interviewed or comment specifically on the credit card charge.
The April 11, 2016, trip allowed Beaton to get to Boston to attend the governor’s bill-signing ceremony at the State House office. The records for his state-issued credit card show Beaton charged the $628.20 JetBlue ticket on April 8, 2016 — three days before the press conference in which Baker signed ground-breaking clean energy legislation that promoted solar energy.
Beaton spent a total of about two hours in the city.
Administration aides scoffed at the notion that he should have also reimbursed the state for the time that Lieutenant Colonel Brian Perrin, who is the $119,00-a-year deputy director of the environmental police, spent chauffeuring the secretary.
When other abuses of state resources came to light in summer and early fall of 2016, Baker moved quickly to fire and suspend environmental officials. He also made clear he would not tolerate such behavior in the future when he announced he was firing a Department of Conservation and Recreation official over allegations of political intimidation.
“I will say this: anybody who engages in any of the kinds of activity that have been associated with either this investigation or some of the stuff that’s been reported on with respect to the misuse of state property and all the rest, we will deal with that and we will deal with it aggressively,” Baker told reporters on Oct. 5, 2016.
The governor’s office did not respond to questions about what Baker knew about Beaton’s flight or his use of the state credit card. They referred questions about the matter to the environmental agency.
Administration aides, speaking on background, noted that Beaton was deeply involved in the passage of the clean energy bill and had been “invited” to join the bill signing.
The governor had just a month earlier suspended Beaton’s Department of Conservation and Recreation commissioner, Leo Roy, and his deputy commissioner, Matthew Sisk, for a week without pay for using several golf carts assigned to the Fourth of July events on the Esplanade to ferry a handful of GOP partygoers. They each were also required to reimburse the state $408 for use of the carts and the time DCR employees spent planning the party.
Several weeks later the governor fired Sisk, a top Baker 2014 campaign field organizer and a GOP state committeeman, after he used blue lights on his state vehicle to get through rush-hour traffic in Boston.
Asked why the governor did not discipline Beaton for his credit card use, Lorenz took umbrage at any suggestion there was a comparison to the transgression by the DCR commissioner and his deputy.
“It would be inappropriate for me to speak to that or make a comparison,’’ he said. “It’s apples and oranges.”
Lorenz said “an overall review of operations” uncovered Beaton’s credit card charges and that the secretary reimbursed the state with a personal check on Oct. 31. It covered both the plane ticket and more than $200 worth of charges for food at Whole Foods and purchases of flowers for condolences and a cake.
He said Beaton’s action “didn’t align with the way we wanted to execute state business.”
Just days after Sisk’s firing, the governor forced Beaton’s chief operating officer, Michael Valanzola, to step down after a Baker-ordered probe concluded that a DCR personnel officer attempted to coerce a co-worker to persuade her fiance, a Democrat, not to challenge a Republican state senator.
The probe found no proof Valanzola was involved, but the administration felt his firing was “necessary to restore confidence in the human resources function for the secretariat.”
The probe also cost Valanzola’s cousin, Jared Valanzola, DCR’s personnel officer, his job, claiming he “did attempt to coerce” a co-worker to persuade her fiance not to challenge the GOP senator.
The environmental agency’s problems continued into January 2017, when Baker’s appointed western regional director, who is also a Republican State Committee member, was forced to resign his $91,000-a-year post after pornography was found on his state-issued computer.
In May, Beaton and the DCR, which he oversees, has also been tagged for its hiring practices. The Globe reported that the environmental agencies are rife with employees who have political and family ties, despite Baker’s campaign vow to ban patronage hires. The appointees have personal and political ties to Baker, Beaton, and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.