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Day 1
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(This series is available on the Globe online at www.boston.com. Use the keyword: Spotlight)

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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region
Spotlight
Public business, private profit

Town officials doubling as developers trade on Franklin's growth

By Globe Staff, 04/18/99

About this series
Spotlight corruption seriew map

In the original four-part series, the Globe Spotlight Team uncovered corruption and favoritism by officials in six Massachusetts communities: Franklin, Billerica, Salem Salisbury, North Attleborough, and Boston.

Such abuses, virtually ignored by prosecutors, were having a corrosive effect on government, helping fuel citizen disillusionment.

The original report in the series was prepared by Assistant Managing Editor Walter V. Robinson, Spotlight Team editor Gerard O'Neill and reporters Alice Dembner, Matt Carroll and Sean P. Murphy. Today's installment was written by Robinson.

PART ONE

  • Franklin
    04/18/99

    PART TWO

  • Billerica
    04/19/99
  • Salem
    04/19/99

    PART THREE

  • N. Attleboro
    04/20/99
  • Salisbury
    04/20/99

    PART FOUR

  • Boston
    04/21/99

    Since then, the Spotlight team has uncovered evidence of corruption in other communities across the state. The reports follow:

  • Kingston
    06/01/99

  • Dover
    06/15/99

  • Everett
    06/24/99

  • Hanson
    06/25/99

  • Winthrop
    07/14/99

  • Easton
    07/19/99

  • Abington
    08/30/99

  • How to contact Spotlight

    The Globe Spotlight Team can be reached at:
    (617) 929-3208.

    Confidential messages about municipal corruption can be left on voice mail at:
    (617) 929-7483.

    The e-mail address is:
    spotlight@globe.com

    First of four parts

    FRANKLIN - When he went house-hunting here in 1990, Wolfgang Bauer, the new town administrator, found a bargain. Four politically connected developers, one of them the police chief, offered him a new home for $160,000 - at least $10,000 less than comparable properties.

    Bauer barely had a $2,000 down payment. So the developers added a bonus: a no-interest, $10,000 second mortgage that saved Bauer a minimum of $10,000 in interest payments over time. There was even a provision that might have forgiven the note entirely.

    Soon after moving in, Bauer ordered the dismissal of a criminal complaint against one of the developers, Patrick M. Marguerite, for illegally removing gravel from a construction site. Bauer also took another step that ultimately saved Marguerite from ever having to post a $25,000 bond.

    But for sheer aggressiveness, Bauer's acceptance of an illegal $20,000 benefit does not match what David P. Laviolette, the Town Council chairman at the time, did in 1995.

    Laviolette threatened to cause trouble for a proposed subdivision unless the builders agreed to pay him $40,000 for a sewer line through his property, and he even put his demands in writing. One of two letters he wrote suggests that Laviolette's interest influenced a critical council vote, and that he initially demanded compensation of at least $100,000.

    Bauer denied any wrongdoing, while Laviolette insisted that his threats were made in his role as a private citizen.

    For much of the 1990's, which has been a boon for development throughout eastern Massachusetts, Franklin has been the fastest-growing community in the state. It is similar to other cities and towns in Greater Boston examined by the Globe Spotlight Team where local officials sometimes brazenly use their positions to enrich themselves and reward their friends and relatives, often at the expense of average citizens.

    And though the Globe documented numerous ethical and criminal violations in six communities, most involving development, prosecutors and ethics regulators are all but indifferent to local corruption, even in the face of persistent citizen complaints.

    What's more, the Globe found, questionable actions by local officials have contributed to growing mistrust of local government, and in some communities have bred a sense that nothing can be done about official favoritism that has helped make millions of dollars for connected developers.

    ''I am astonished at how pervasive the suspicion of wrongdoing is,'' said Gerry Lawler, the chairman of the Franklin Neighborhood Alliance, which has worked to control growth. ''There is almost a sense of hopelessness. The system as it exists has just beaten the will out of people.''

    Principal players in Franklin corruption case
    Wolfgang Bauer Wolfgang Bauer:
    Town administrator for eight years who received a discount on home purchase
    Lawrence P. Benedetto Lawrence P. Benedetto: Longtime police chief and silent partner in real estate developments James C. Chilson James C. Chilson: Property owner whose land became part of a gravel pit
    David P. Laviolette: Former Town Council chairman who demanded money from a builder for sewer easement. Patrick M. Margueritte: Major home builder responsible for illegal gravel removal
    Paul McSheffery: New homeowner who has led protests against tax oversight of homebuilders Gail Lembo: Former Town Councilor who first raised outcry about illegal gravel site

    Franklin population

    In Franklin, cynicism is only part of the price the town is paying. The permissive atmosphere fostered by Bauer, and by town boards well-marbled with developers and their friends, encouraged some builders to flout building codes. That has left scores of home buyers living in houses with structural problems, and in subdivisions without streetlights, proper drainage, or paving.

    More ominously, the unchecked growth has created the potential for an environmental nightmare.

    In the next decade, the aquifer Franklin shares with three smaller communities - Medway, Millis, and Norfolk - may be so depleted that the water will be undrinkable during some periods, according to Robert L. Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

    Zimmerman estimates that Franklin will have to spend tens of millions, and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, to remedy the problem. Zimmerman and others blame overdevelopment and Franklin's zealous commitment to building sewers. The sewer system has been a major boon for developers, but recyclable water ends up flowing into Boston Harbor instead of replenishing the aquifer.

    Waivers commonly granted to developers

    When Bauer arrived in March 1990, the population was 22,000. Now, nearly 30,000 people live in Franklin, which sits near both I-95 and I-495 about 30 miles southwest of Boston. Most newcomers have bought homes in attractive subdivisions, drawn by a desireable community with good schools.

    Until a voter uprising 18 months ago propelled growth-control advocates onto the Town Council and the Planning Board, prompting Bauer's resignation, he was well-suited to the political apparatus that recruited him. At one point, developers or their relatives held several seats on the Town Council, as well as on the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Board of Health, and School Committee.

    The Planning Board was nicknamed the Waivers Board, for its habit of asking developers which regulations they wanted waived. Similarly, the Zoning Board was known as the Variances Board, for its willingness to allow politically-connected builders to build on virtually any lot.

    In that freewheeling atmosphere, Council Chairman Laviolette extracted money from two developers, Michael J. Michon and Daniel J. Lewis, who wanted to build an 11-home subdivision on land that backed up to Laviolette's home.

    The builders faced another hurdle: As farmland, the site had been taxed at a lower rate, so the town could buy it by matching their $270,000 offer to the owner.

    At an Aug. 9, 1995, meeting, according to minutes of the session, the Town Council's sentiment was to buy the land. But Bauer said the town didn't have the money, and would have to borrow to buy the property. Mark J. Lanza, the town attorney, then said the council would need a two-thirds vote to borrow money.

    The council voted 8-7 not to buy the land, and some councilors may have known that Laviolette, who recused himself, stood to benefit from the vote: They had been given copies of the purchase and sale agreement with the landowner and it said the builders were negotiating an easement with Laviolette.

    Six weeks later, some councilors were furious when they learned the town had $3.9 million in free cash.

    In one letter Laviolette wrote to the developers a month later, he hinted that the council's decision to forego the purchase was made so he could strike a deal with the builders. Lanza, the town attorney, subsequently served as Laviolette's private lawyer when he sold the easement.

    Michon said he first approached Laviolette about buying an easement before the vote. Afterwards, Michon said, Laviolette demanded tens of thousands of dollars in cash for the easement and a buildable lot in the subdivision worth another $80,000. Subsequently, the builders agreed to give him just the lot.

    But in October 1995, Michon decided to buy the easement from another abutter, David Comfort, for $20,000. That prompted the first of Laviolette's letters.

    In the Oct. 26 letter, noting his initial demand for ''a house lot and cash for a sewer easement,'' Laviolette said: ''You stated that you had already planned on swapping a house lot but that you were not prepared to offer any cash. I agreed to this and then reaffirmed this at a subsequent meeting between you, your partner and I.''

    Five days later, in a brusque follow-up, Laviolette complained about Michon's ''business decision'' to opt for the less expensive deal with Comfort.

    ''I will now make a similar business decision,'' wrote Laviolette, dropping his demand for the house lot. ''My bottom line price is $40,000 plus legal expenses. For this you get an easement, no potential hassles from a disgruntled abutter and perhaps fewer problems dealing with Conservation, Planning Board and possibly the ZBA [Zoning Board of Appeals].''

    Last week, Michon said Laviolette's threats left him no choice but to give in and pay the $40,000. Michon called Laviolette's demands ''highway robbery.''

    ''When I told him we had another agreement, he just flipped,'' Michon said. ''That's when I got the letter.... He was going to use his position to squeeze us.''

    Laviolette, confronted with the letters, admitted that he initially sought the huge payment for the easement. As for the reference in his letter that the council outcome occurred because he had the potential to make money from it, Laviolette said: ''Anyone can interpret that any way they want. I really don't know what I was thinking when I wrote that.''

    Laviolette, 58, who did not seek reelection in 1997, said he made the threats as a private citizen, not as council chairman.

    ''I could have made things difficult because I would have gone to all those other boards and complained to them because he was trying to put the screws to me,'' Laviolette explained. ''Would the other town officials have paid special heed to me because of my position? Absolutely not.''

    Lanza, the town attorney, said he was unaware of Laviolette's threats.

    Officials pave way for illegal gravel removal

    Emily Road Larry and Patti McSheffery and their Franklin neighbors have forced the town to finish the subdivision work that the builder would not.
    (Globe Photo / John Tlumacki)

    In contrast, it was what Town Administrator Bauer did not do that bothered Councilor Gail Lembo.

    Soon after Bauer bought his home from Marguerite, Police Chief Lawrence P. Benedetto, John L. Daddario, and attorney Robert E. Ficco, Lembo asked Bauer to take action against Marguerite for transforming a proposed subdivision that he was slated to build into an enormous gravel pit.

    Lembo's initial complaint in late 1989, and her subsequent plea to Bauer, opened the book on one of Franklin's enduring mysteries: How could Marguerite illegally haul an estimated 5,000 truckloads of valuable fill over 18 months from what was supposed to be a 40-home subdivision, create a 10-acre open pit, and escape penalties?

    Marguerite had a permit to remove gravel for the roadway of the subdivision, known as Populatic Heights. But from early 1989 until mid-1990, at least 133,000 cubic yards of high-grade gravel - and, some say, perhaps twice that - was trucked off and sold at an estimated $5-$6 a cubic yard.

    Lembo recalled that when she demanded action from Bauer, ''He said, `I just bought a house from someone involved in that operation.' I said to myself, `Great, this is just going right down the tubes,' and that's exactly what happened.''

    But Marguerite also got help from others, it appears. The Globe found a letter Chief Benedetto wrote in February 1989, turning aside citizen complaints about the trucking. Benedetto, though he denied protecting a man he was in business with elsewhere in town, admitted he ''probably'' wrote the letter at Marguerite's request.

    Others also interceded for the builder. In a June 28, 1990 letter, Donald Laliberte, the chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said his board was prepared to allow Marguerite to remove even more gravel from the already cratered site.

    Why would Laliberte do that?

    Because he was told to by Benedetto, according to two town officials who told the Globe that Laliberte informed them of Benedetto's intercession.

    One of the two, James C. Chilson, who is now the Planning Board chairman, was an erstwhile partner in the proposed subdivision whose seven house lots were rendered useless by the gravel pit. Chilson has spent years pressing a legal case, and accusing Bauer and Lanza of protecting Marguerite. The pit remains an undeveloped eyesore to this day.

    Chilson and the other official, who declined to be identified, said Laliberte confided in them that Benedetto told him not to close down the gravel operation ''until we get everything out.'' Bauer, too, said he subsequently learned that his police chief was a ''silent partner'' with Marguerite in the illegal gravel operation.

    When the Globe asked Laliberte about Benedetto's intercession, and whether it prompted him to write the letter, he said, ''I have no comment about that.''

    Benedetto and Marguerite denied that the police chief had a financial stake in the operation.

    But it was Bauer's public intercession that saved Marguerite from sanctions. In July 1990, Laliberte said, Bauer came to the Appeals Board ''with Pat Marguerite, trying to get it resolved in Pat Marguerite's favor.'' Bauer, Lembo said, ''was acting as if he was an attorney for Patrick Marguerite.''

    According to the minutes of the meeting, Bauer said Marguerite might need to remove more gravel. And he persuaded the board to postpone collecting a long-overdue $25,000 bond from Marguerite. The delay saved Marguerite the money: He filed for bankruptcy in 1991.

    Within weeks, Bauer ordered Francis J. Cummings Jr., the building commissioner, to drop an application for a criminal complaint against Marguerite for failing to post the bond.

    Two years later, Bauer fired Cummings, after Cummings complained repeatedly that his attempts to take legal action against Marguerite were continually blocked by Bauer and Lanza.

    Town records support Cummings, who is now the Town Council chairman: Time and again, Bauer gave Marguerite opportunities to restore the site and post the bond. The builder never did either, yet in April 1997, Bauer and Lanza dropped all legal claims against Marguerite.

    Even Lanza, a defender of Bauer, said dropping the criminal complaint in 1990 ''begins to smack of favoritism.''

    Bauer, 55, now town manager in West Warwick, R.I., denied trying to help Marguerite. Both he and Lanza said the legal steps they took were designed to seek a resolution that would ultimately allow someone else to develop the subdivision.

    Police chief reluctant to disclose partnerships

    Benedetto, 57, operates behind Franklin's most opaque veil. A powerful and wealthy figure who drives a Ferrari, his development interests have long prompted concerns in town.

    Benedetto's position may have helped him in other ways. In 1994, a judge found probable cause to charge Benedetto with assault with a deadly weapon for pointing his revolver at Albert J. Figaratto, a local bookmaker he was feuding with. Even though there was an independent witness, the Norfolk County district attorney's office dropped the case.

    The chief denied the incident occurred, though he said: ''In the middle of the night, I'd screw a .38 into his ear, the little (expletive). But I wouldn't do it in broad daylight.''

    In a series of contradictory statements to the Globe, Benedetto insisted that his only partnership with Marguerite was in the subdivision Bauer called home. But confronted with evidence that was not true, Benedetto acknowledged making a minor investment - $5,000 - in a 100-unit condominium project, Spruce Pond, that Marguerite built.

    Under further questioning, the police chief conceded that he invested $130,000 for a half interest in Spruce Pond.

    As for the gravel operation, Benedetto said he only considered joining Marguerite in the venture. But he said funds from Spruce Pond and the gravel operation may have been commingled. Subsequently, however, he called back to say his accountant had informed him that was not possible.

    The Globe could find no documentary evidence of Benedetto's involvement in the gravel operation. But, about the condo project, the chief said: ''Part of our agreement was that there would be no discussion of my involvement. That was our understanding.''

    In a second interview, Benedetto described the condo project and subdivision where Bauer lived as ''the two projects you can tie me to.'' Asked how he could have initially denied having a half interest in a 100-unit condo development, the chief replied: ''I almost forgot about it.''

    Partnership tied to illegal benefit

    Benedetto also downplayed his role in Woodlocke Development Corp., the partnership that developed Lockewood Drive, where Bauer settled. Benedetto was president and treasurer.

    ''Was I?'' the chief said when told of his position.

    There may be good reason for the partners to distance themselves from Woodlocke: The four appear to have given an illegal financial benefit to the town administrator, who often made decisions that affected their development interests. State law prohibits public officials from accepting anything of value from people with business before them.

    ... My bottom line price is $40,000 plus legal expenses. For this you get an easement, no potential hassles from a disgruntled abutter and perhaps fewer problems in dealing with Conservation, Planning Board and possibly the ZBA ...

    An excerpt of the letter that Town Chairman David P. Laviolette sent to developer Michael Michon in 1995.

    Sales and assessing figures suggest that the $160,000 sale price amounted to a substantial discount. A similar house next door, sold for $183,000 in 1991, is assessed for $5,000 more than the Bauer house.

    Bauer, Benedetto, Marguerite, and Daddario, in separate interviews, insisted the price was discounted solely because the house was not selling. Ficco declined to comment.

    Yet even with that discount, Bauer was still unable to buy. So the developers gave Bauer a $10,000 second mortgage, interest-free and requiring no repayment for five years. Without the second mortgage - and at many banks, even with it - Bauer would not have been able to buy the house since his down payment at closing was only $2,080.

    Bauer and his wife, Nancy E. Bauer, divorced in 1993. By the time she sold the house last year, an ordinary second mortgage of that size would have required about $10,000 or more in interest payments. Mrs. Bauer got the house as part of the divorce settlement. She repaid the $10,000 note.

    According to documents provided by Mrs. Bauer, the second mortgage had another unusual provision: The $10,000 debt would have been erased if the home's value did not increase.

    Dean Cooperative Bank, where Daddario was a board member, also charged Bauer a monthly mortgage payment lower than justified: Two weeks after the divorce became final, Mrs. Bauer got a notice from the bank that because of ''an unforeseen computer error,'' monthly payments had been $142 too low. The bank also added $1,800 to the principal.

    Wayne A. Cottle, the bank president, refused to discuss the issue.

    Altogether, the arrangement appears to have given Bauer an illegal financial benefit of at least $20,000. Yet his benefactors said that there was nothing improper about the deal. ''We were thrilled to death to get someone of stature in there,'' Benedetto said.

    Bauer also denied any wrongdoing, saying, ''I told them what my affordable level was [$150,000] and that they could take it or leave it.'' Eventually, he said, they offered the second mortgage, which set the effective price at $150,000.

    Bauer said that if he gets a deal, ''Is it because I'm town administrator? I don't know. If other people deal with me differently because I'm town administrator, is that my responsibility? No.''

    His former wife disagrees. ''One thing I never knew was if it was illegal or just improper,'' she said. ''Maybe we were sitting ducks and took advantage of something.'' In hindsight, Mrs. Bauer said, ''It seemed that they were trying to get special favors from Wolfgang.''

    Special favors flowed to builder, son-in-law

    Whether they tried or not, Marguerite and his builder son-in-law, Sean B. Skehill, appeared to receive special favors from Bauer and his subordinates, the Globe found.

    And Bauer, after his marriage dissolved, turned to Marguerite for yet another financial benefit. In a 1996 settlement with the state Ethics Commission, Bauer paid a $10,000 fine for taking $9,300 in free rent over 31 months in an apartment building owned by Marguerite and another builder, Francis Molla. The builders each paid $5,000 fines.

    In May 1994, when Bauer was living in the subsidized apartment, he wrote to Medway officials asking to bring Medway's sewer line into the northeastern corner of Franklin, where Marguerite and Skehill were planning two subdivisions.

    The sewer line saved the builders an estimated $350,000, including $100,000 they got back from a town sewer maintenance fund, according to Chilson, the Planning Board chairman. Bauer said the hookup to Medway was good for the town.

    In another case, Bauer's building commissioner, Alan B. Fraser, gave Marguerite permission to build four separate houses on two lots on Union Street, a step that Fraser's two successors said violates the town's zoning bylaws.

    Also in 1994, one builder was fined $15,000 for pouring eight foundations without obtaining permits. Yet there was no penalty when Marguerite and Skehill poured four foundations without permits. What's more, they poured the foundations, there and elsewhere, without first installing inexpensive underdrains that are required by code, according to Brenda Sampson, an assistant building commissioner. ''You have to ask, how did they get away with all this?'' Sampson said.

    Dennis Ravi, whose home on Cooper Drive has serious structural flaws, said that when he complained to Fraser, ''he yelled at me for wasting his time.''

    Several times, Skehill's and Marguerite's firms failed to adequately complete subdivisions, leaving angry homebuyers coping with flooded basements, sagging floors, patchwork paving, no streetlights, and a bureaucracy curiously unable to hold the builders accountable.

    Bauer's appointees appear to have underestimated the amount of the bond that Skehill had to provide to guarantee they would finish subdivison infrastructure. As a result, Franklin taxpayers face hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs to complete the work. Under pressure from homeowners, the town is now scrambling to attach properties owned by Skehill.

    ''It's inconceivable that town officials didn't know what was going on,'' said Patti McSheffery, who has helped organize neighbors on unfinished Emily Drive. ''They can blame the builder, but he's not the only builder getting away with these violations. The only common denominator here is the town.''

    Yet Bauer's successor, Ronald Owens, said the town has no obligation to take slipshod builders to court to get defects fixed, even though state law allows communities to do just that.

    Matthias J. Mulvey, the interim building commissioner last year, became a hero to aggrieved homeowners when he took several builders to criminal court. But in January, Owens let Mulvey go. Said Owens: ''The town should not be a guarantor of a developer's work.'' Once a home is certified for occupancy, he added, ''the town has validated what the developer did.''

    For their part, Skehill and his father-in-law scoffed at the notion that they have received preferential treatment. If anything, they said, they are being treated more harshly than other builders.

    ''They're taking their revenge on my children,'' complained Marguerite, who is 54. ''Even the Mafia doesn't do that.''

    This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 04/18/99.
    © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.


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