Three quick thoughts about the Republican race

Flag of the Cayman Islands

Three quick observations about the state of the Republican presidential campaign:

• It’s been a very bad week for Mitt Romney. First came his peevish debate performance Monday night. Then came his admission that his tax rate is half that of ordinary Americans, followed by the revelation that he parks a great deal of his wealth in the Cayman Islands.

But one thing the media are unlikely to back down on is their insistence that he’s “two for two” going into Saturday’s South Carolina primary, even though we’ve known since Jan. 6 that Rick Santorum may have beaten him in the Iowa caucuses.

Now the Des Moines Register reports that the best numbers we’re ever going to get show Santorum ahead of Romney by 34 votes. Apparently the votes from eight precincts have been lost, so we’ll never know exactly who won.

Still, the media’s insistence that Romney had “won” Iowa by eight votes was never based on anything more than a provisional count that crumbled within hours. If it was all right to report that Romney won Iowa then, it’s certainly all right to say Santorum won Iowa now.

Does it matter? No. But it was the media that told us relentlessly and breathlessly for many months that it did matter. So surely it matters that Romney apparently came in a narrow second, eh?

• Will Fox News allow Sarah Palin to take part in its post-debate spin tonight now that she has essentially endorsed Newt Gingrich for president? Tune in and see.

• I thought it was crystal-clear that Gingrich was being racially provocative when he got into his food-stamp exchange with Juan Williams on Monday night, and I’m amazed by those who refuse to see it that way. So I was delighted to see this report from the road in today’s New York Times, which ends:

“I want to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place,’’ she said.

The audience burst into sustained applause.

Any questions? And don’t miss Charles Pierce: “What Newt Gingrich is doing down here is running a campaign that is pure George Corley Wallace, straight out of 1968 and 1972.”

For Democrats, a couple of taxing situations

When the word came down Tuesday night that Patrice Tierney, wife of U.S. Rep. John Tierney, would plead guilty to federal tax-fraud charges, many of us political junkies were dumbstruck. With exotic elements like $7 million in illicit foreign gambling profits and a ne’er-do-well brother holed up in Antigua, it was not your typical political scandal.

Today’s news that Suzanne Bump, the Democratic candidate for state auditor, has tax problems of her own may prove to be more important come Election Day. More about that in a moment. First, back to the Tierneys.

Republicans and the media are both calling on Tierney, a Salem Democrat, to reveal what he knew and when he knew it with regard to his wife’s tax woes. They’re absolutely right. As soon as possible, Tierney should sit down for a wide-ranging news conference and answer any and all questions. And woe be to him if any of those answers turn out to fall short of full disclosure.

But the media have an independent role here, too, and I hope they are working on it even as I write this. For me, the big question is whether the Tierney scandal resulted in any taxes being unpaid. It would appear that it did not.

Based on the stories I’ve seen, it seems that Patrice Tierney’s crime consisted of accurately reporting her brother’s income, but labeling it as legal commissions rather than as ill-gotten gains. Congressman Tierney said in a statement that “there are not any allegations of any income-tax loss to the government.” Nor are federal prosecutors seeking any sort of restitution. Along with the question of the congressman’s involvement, that is the big issue the media should be investigating.

Will this endanger Tierney’s re-election prospects? Put it this way: North Shore Republicans are eating their collective heart out that their candidate isn’t Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins or former congressman Peter Torkildsen, whom Tierney defeated in 1996.

Instead, Tierney is facing William Hudak, an extremist who has compared President Obama to Osama bin Laden and who has flirted with the birther movement, which believes Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States and is thus ineligible to serve as president. For good measure, Hudak’s campaign wrongly claimed last winter that U.S. Sen. Scott Brown had endorsed him.

Unless there are more Tierney-related bombshells, it is still difficult to imagine a Hudak victory.

The Bump matter, though it does not involve anything as spectacular as federal charges and foreign intrigue, is likely to have a more deleterious effect on her campaign for state auditor. A veteran political figure who most recently served in Gov. Deval Patrick’s cabinet, she was caught claiming both Great Barrington and Boston as her principal residence, saving more than $6,000 in Boston property taxes.

The story, which appears on the front page of today’s Globe, was reported by my Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson’s students. Bump insists she did nothing wrong, but the state Department of Revenue says otherwise.

The difference between Bump and Tierney is that Bump’s actions, whether legal or not, definitely cost taxpayers. They raise serious questions about her ability to act as a watchdog over how state agencies spend our money.

What’s more, the Republican candidate, Mary Z. Connaughton, is credible and visible. As a former member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, she was an outspoken advocate for cracking down on runaway spending at the Big Dig. Moreover, if it looks like Democrats are going to do well on Nov. 2 (no sure thing), a lot of voters — even Democrats — may want to elect a Republican to keep an eye on the books.

The paradox of the Tierney and Bump stories is that the more serious matter is less likely to have an effect on the election. More broadly, though, both stories put Democrats on the defensive at a time when they can least afford it.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Connecting the public-pension dots

Chris Cassidy reports in the Salem News that the state has appointed a replacement for Essex Regional Retirement Board chairman Timothy Bassett, whose reign of error may finally be drawing to a close — although Bassett, naturally, is fighting it in court. (Here’s just a small taste from the archives.)

Andrea Estes reports in the Boston Globe that Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is passing out enabling taxpayer-funded pensions as if they were bags of popcorn, in one case awarding greasing the skids for a nearly $47,000 annual pension for someone who’d worked full-time for only three years.

And Mary Williams Walsh reports in the New York Times that states across the country are taking enormous risks with their public-pension funds, gambling that junk bonds and other dubious investments will help them catch up with their ballooning liabilities.

The question that doesn’t get asked often enough: Why are public employees still receiving pension benefits when virtually everyone hired in the private sector for the past 10 or 15 years has been diverted to a defined-contribution plan such as a 401(k)?

Lawyering up to suppress public records

The ongoing outrage that is the Essex Regional Retirement Board continues. According to Salem News reporter Chris Cassidy, the board plans to increase its spending on legal fees by $150,000 in 2010. Why? To fight media requests for public records.

Blaming the press for the spending increase, chief operating officer Lilli Gilligan is quoted as saying, “It’s all because of the media attention this office has gotten in the past year.”

But as Cassidy observes, much of the board’s energy and money is wasted on trying to come up with excuses not to release documents that are clearly public. For instance, Cassidy writes:

When The Salem News in 2007 requested access to the two most recent years of the board’s meeting minutes — documents that cities and towns routinely post on their Web sites — the board … enlisted its lawyers.

A Boston law firm responded 18 days later, advising it was “reviewing the meeting minutes requested to determine which portions of the minutes might be exempt from disclosure pursuant to the Open Meeting Law and the Public Records Law.”

The minutes arrived two days later — nearly three weeks after the initial request was made.

For background on the Essex board, see these earlier posts.

Timothy Bassett, triple-dipper

Media Nation would like to apologize to Timothy Bassett, chairman of the Essex Regional Retirement Board, for calling him “a notorious double-dipper.” The old Lily Tomlin line comes to mind, because the Boston Globe’s Sean Murphy today reports that Bassett is actually a triple-dipper.

It seems that, in addition to drawing a $41,000-a-year state pension while being paid $123,000 to run the underperforming pension system, Bassett also works as a lobbyist, getting paid more than a half-million dollars since 2001.

Meanwhile, Stacie Galang of the Salem News reports that the retirement board violated the state’s open-meeting law when it locked the doors during its June 4 meeting. The Essex County district attorney’s office has ordered the board to acknowledge the violation at its next meeting.

The board responded by saying the lockout was necessary because it keeps confidential records in its meeting room. It makes you wonder how long this has been going on.

Another public pension outrage (III)

Salem News reporter Chris Cassidy is back with another sordid tale about the Essex Regional Retirement Board. This time, the board is looking to lower the retirement age for public-works employees from 65 to 55. You can’t make this stuff up.

Unlike the board’s recent move to lower the age for 911 dispatchers from 65 to 60, this time it apparently cannot act on its own. Rather, it has asked state Sen. Thomas McGee, D-Lynn, to file legislation on its behalf. Board chairman Timothy Bassett, a notorious double-dipper, is said to be buddies with McGee, son of a legendary former House speaker who was ousted by reformers a generation ago.

Fortunately, Cassidy writes that the bill, which has been filed in previous sessions, is unlikely to go anywhere.

Another public pension outrage (II)

As Amused notes, Timothy Bassett and his wife, Linda Bassett, have both been caught up in their own public-pension controversies. Bassett chairs the Essex Regional Retirement Board, which is responsible for a decision to lower the retirement age from 65 to 60 for police and fire dispatchers in four North Shore towns.

Sean Murphy reports in the Boston Globe today on Linda Bassett’s ongoing effort to hold on to $20,000 in pension payments that she received for serving on — though rarely attending meetings of — the board of library trustees in Lynn.

And here is an earlier Murphy story on Timothy Bassett, beneficiary of a taxpayer-funded gift from former House speaker Tom Finneran that allows him to collect his $41,000-a-year public pension while getting paid $123,000 by the retirement board.

The Salem News, following up Chris Cassidy’s story, runs an editorial today noting that the board not only has a $123,000 executive director (Bassett) but also a chief operating officer, Lilli Gilligan. The editorial observes that “why this tiny agency needs both an executive director and COO is another question for taxpayers to ponder.”

I so can’t wait for the state sales tax to rise by 25 percent. How about you?

Update: Mrs. Media Nation passes along this link. It turns out that Linda Bassett is a serious foodie and the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston,” not to mention a columnist for two GateHouse papers — North Shore Sunday and Current River Sunday. (Mrs. B’s bio may be out of date — Current River Sunday does not appear on GateHouse’s list of newspapers.)

She is also “on the culinary faculty at North Shore Community College.” Pension alert!

Update II: I’m told that Current River Sunday is now the Newburyport Current.

Another public pension outrage

In the midst of the worst fiscal crisis we’ve seen in many years, an obscure North Shore agency has voted to lower the retirement age for police and fire dispatchers from 65 to 60. The Salem News’ Chris Cassidy reports:

Thanks to a subtle change in job title, some North Shore emergency dispatchers will be able to retire five years early under new rules approved by the Essex Regional Retirement Board.

By reclassifying police and fire dispatchers as “signal operators,” the board recently allowed the group to retire with maximum benefits at age 60.

The change affects Boxford, Hamilton, Ipswich, Topsfield and Wenham. Naturally, defenders of this outrage say the move was made in order to rectify an injustice. Naturally, the extra cost to taxpayers is said to be negligible. Naturally, we are told that dispatchers work under an incredible amount of stress.

Guess what? I’m feeling pretty stressed right now. In what rational universe are new benefits approved in the midst of a budget meltdown — a meltdown that taxpayers are going to have to fund? The arrogance of this money grab boggles the mind.

Here are the board members.