A six-week investigation by The Crimson has revealed a consistent pattern of conflict-of-interest, nepotism and misuse of public office by one of Somerville's most powerful political families. First of a two-part series.
Democratic State Rep. Marie E. Howe of Somerville and her younger brother John J. Howe, a Somerville property tax assessor, may have systematically used tax assessments to reward personal friends and punish political opponents, an examination of the city's tax records shows.
Although the Howes deny using assessment powers as a political weapon, Somerville tax records reveal a persistent pattern of questionable tax reductions awarded to political friends, and tax increases levied on political opponents.
In one specific instance of conflict-of-interest, the Howes used their assessment powers to give themselves a tax break on their own property.
On June 2, 1976, 35-year-old John Howe lowered the yearly assessment on a piece of property on Charnwood Road in Somerville, a block from his home, by nearly 25 per cent--from $8400 to $6400. This was one of the largest proportionate reductions in residential property taxes awarded that year in Somerville.
Nearly a year later, Somerville Alderman Andrew Puglia discovered that the property on Charnwood Road was owned by John's older sister Marie, and that the property's beneficiaries were listed on the property deed as "John J. Howe and Kristen Howe." Thus assessor Howe lowered the taxes on a piece of property owned by his own family.
John Howe admits that he lowered the assessment so the previous owners could more easily sell the property to his sister, even though the law requires assessment at full property value. But Howe maintains that his actions were not a direct conflict-of-interest, because his family members did not own the property prior to his action. Nevertheless, those who benefited from Howe's decision to lower the assessment were clearly the Howes themselves, who bought the Charnwood Road property at the lower price.
"When have you ever heard of an assessor lowering the assessment so the owners could sell the house?" Puglia, a political opponent of the Howes, asks. "That's unheard of. You're supposed to lower the assessment only if the property has gone down in value. And then, all of a sudden, a few months later, lo and behold, Howe's sister buys the property."
Howe justifies his decision to lower his family's taxes by saying that the property had been over-assessed previously--something Somerville insiders doubt, in light of the city's usually-lenient assessment practices, and the unusual timing of Howe's sudden tax decrease. Only the state's Department of Corporation and Taxation can rule definitively whether Howe's self-help tax break was legitimate, but the department has so far taken no steps to handle the politically sensitive issue.
Howe maintains that at the time he lowered the assessment on the Charnwood Road property, he did not know his sister was planning to buy it. "We were shocked when we heard about it," he stated last year. "What she [Marie] does in her office is one thing, and what I do in mine is another. We don't butt into each other's business." But as one Somerville politician noted skeptically, "Who the hell are they kidding? Marie Howe controls John like a puppet. If my brother owned a house and the assessment was lowered, I'd sure as hell know about it."
Even if Howe knew his sister was planning to purchase the property, he says that it was still legal because it did not involve a direct conflict-of-interest. Howe claims that the "John J. Howe" who is listed as the property's beneficiary is not himself, but his eight-year-old son, John Joseph Howe. (The "Kristen Howe" also listed on the deed is Howe's daughter..) Legally, there is no way to tell which John J. Howe is the true beneficiary.
However, even if it is his son who is the actual beneficiary, Howe would still seem to be involved in conflict-of-interest, because he is the beneficiary's legal custodian. Howe denies this, saying his wife could be the custodian instead. But according to several legal sources, including one in the state Attorney General's office, if the state Taxation Department finds that Howe's family tax break was unjustified, the assessor could be fired by the Department for violating the state's conflict-of-interest statute.
Marie Howe says she bought the Charnwood Road property after her brother lowered the assessment by $2000 as an act of charity toward the previous owners, whom she says were "in deep financial trouble." She denies asking her brother to change the property's assessment, and says that those who charge the family with conflict-of-interest are "sick."
Several months after Marie Howe bought the Charnwood Road property, her brother raised the assessment by $900. He says he did this because the property had increased in value after his earlier assessment because it was no longer vacant. But Alderman Puglia charges that Howe raised the assessment only when he found out he was being investigated for conflict-of-interest. "After they became aware that I was snooping around, they took a pencil and tried to cover their tracks by changing the assessment," Puglia charges.
The Enemies List