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
The Charnwood Road property is not the only time the Howes have used tax assessments in Somerville for personal and political purposes. The record shows that the Howes may have consistently used the assessing process to reward their personal friends and punish their political enemies.
On June 5, 1976, Howe raised the assessment on the business property of Cosmo Capobianco by $1000. Howe says he increased Capobianco's taxes because of building improvements on the property. But Capobianco says it's been more than four years since he made any building improvements on his property, and that his taxes were raised at that time. Capobianco is a friend and campaign contributor to former Somerville Mayor Lester Ralph, a long-time foe of the Howes who defeated Marie in the 1971 mayoral race. Marie Howe, in an interview with The Crimson, called Capobianco a Ralph "crony ... who has done nothing but steal from the city of Somerville on payroll jobs in the county." The man who personally raised Capobianco's taxes, John Howe, has publicly labeled Capobianco a "political parasite"--prompting Capobianco to sue for libel. The suit is still pending. "There's no question Howe has used assessments as a political tool," Capobianco says.
Three days earlier, Howe had raised by $800 the assessment on property owned by Paul and Doris Griffin. Howe says he raised the assessment because he thought the Griffins' house was a three-family dwelling. Doris Griffin was also a friend of Ralph, Marie Howe's persistent opponent: she had worked as a door-to-door canvasser in his mayoral campaigns, and later was appointed by Ralph to the Somerville Board of Appeals. "Howe said that the reason he raised our assessment [from a two-family dwelling to a three-family dwelling] was because he ... saw some curtains in the attic where my daughter slept, and just assumed there was a third family there," Doris Griffin says. But there were only two families in the Griffin house. As proof that the Griffins were a three-family household, Howe presented to the assessors photographs he had taken showing curtains in the attic of the Griffin house. Doris Griffin says Howe told her he "always" takes photos of the many hundreds of properties he assesses.
The Griffins appealed Howe's decision, and the rest of the assessors decided to grant the family an abatement. "I'm sure he [Howe] doesn't go around this city taking pictures of all several thousand of the houses in Somerville
Both Howes deny that Marie asked John to raise the Griffins' assessment; both deny that the increased assessment was politically motivated.
Former Somerville mayor and current City Clerk William J. Donovan, a political antagonist of Marie Howe and who admits having "no great love" for the Howes, had his property assessment raised by Howe from $10,600 to $14,000 in 1976. Howe says the property was previously under-valued, and that the 40-per-cent assessment increase was long overdue. But the property itself had no buildings that could have increased in value. "The land was vacant," Donovan remembers. "He couldn't justify the assessment." Donovan, too, received an abatement from the rest of the city's assessors.
Marie Howe denies playing any role in Donovan's increased property taxes. Her brother says the assessment was warranted, adding that Donovan's property was full of debris, and is a "disgrace."
The Somerville Journal Affair
One of Howe's largest assessment increases was for the Somerville Press, Inc., which publishes the weekly Somerville Journal. For years, the Howe family has been at political odds with the Journal. In 1974, the newspaper angered the Howes by its coverage of Marie Howe's conviction for trespassing. The conviction stemmed from an incident in which Marie Howe's friend, Walter Silva, forcibly removed the door of one of Howe's tenants from its hinges, while Marie participated in the break-in. Two years later, the Journal gave front-page coverage to Marie's arrest for disorderly conduct during Queen Elizabeth's bicentennial visit to Boston; the paper reported that Marie bit the hand of her arresting officer, requiring him to go to the hospital to get a tetanus shot, and that she then gave the police an alias so they wouldn't know she was a state representative. "She was infuriated after we did the 'Howe Bites Cop' story," says Journal co-editor Barbara Powers. "She said we've always been against her, and she came down [to the newspaper office] and started screaming and yelling and threatening to take us to court." No such suit ever came to trial.
On June 2, 1976, John Howe raised the Journal's tax assessment from $13,000 to $24,4000--an increase of nearly 100 per cent. The Journal had remodeled its building in the past year, but the changes were minor compared with the nearly two-fold property tax increase. "He singled us out, there's no question about it," says one Journal staffer. "He didn't do the same to other businesses." The newspaper appealed Howe's decision, and received a full tax abatement.
Howe maintains his attempted tax increase was long overdue, and "should be higher."
A Little Help for Their Friends
At the same time John Howe was allegedly using his assessment powers to punish his family's political enemies, he was also lowering the taxes of the family's political and personal friends.
In 1976, John Howe lowered the assessments of Robert and Selma Kopelman by nearly $15,000--from $44,900 to $30,000. The Kopelmans were long-time neighbors of the Howes. Though assessments are generally consistent in a given neighborhood, other property assessments in the area were raised by Howe.
On May 4, of that year, Howe also lowered--from $7000 to $6600--the assessment on the home of Leonard Scott, his wife and children. Scott served with Marie Howe on the Somerville School Board, and is reported to be a very close personal friend and companion of Marie Howe. She denies, however, using her influence to lower Scott's assessment, and says "I don't really know Leonard Scott that well."
Because of John Howe's caprius use of his assessment powers and the great influence of the Howe family in Somerville, many of those whose assessment were raised by Howe were afraid to talk to The Crimson.
Paul M. Haley, one-time Somerville alderman who admits that he "never had anything in common" with the Howes, says publicly that the increased assessment of his property was justified: "[In my neighborhood] I think it was just my house and a couple of others at the time (that had an increased assessment), but I can't quarrel with anyone, you know?"
Robert Nunziato, a supporter of Howe opponent Mayor Ralph and a one-time candidate for alderman, did not want to talk about Howe's increase of the assessment of property owned by his father and uncle. "We've been here too long in the city," he said. "What they do, they do. I'd rather forget about it."
Crackdown on Leftists
John Howe may have used his office especially to crack down on political activists. He raised from $7000 to $7900 the assessment of Chris Burns and the "cooperative family" Burns was living with. Burns had contributed money to Howe opponent Lester Ralph, and has been active in Citizens for Participation in Political Action and other liberal groups in Somerville. Marie Howe personally lobbied against Burns in 1972, when the Democratic City Committee in Somerville met to debate his resolution condemning the Vietnam War. Four years later, John Howe's rationale for raising Burns's assessment was that he saw many names on the cooperative family houses. Burns appealed the decision, and the rest of the city's assessors granted an abatement.
Both Howes deny that the assessment was raised for political reasons.
Around the corner from Burns lives another "cooperative family" of unrelated adults, including leftist political activist Frank Ackerman. In October 1976 at a packed meeting of the city's Board of Assessors, Ackerman denounced the board for using tax assessments as a political weapon. During Ackerman's speech, Howe interrupted opened, opened the tax books for Ackerman's neighborhood, and asked threateningly: "Mr. Ackerman, where did you say you lived?"
The next day, at Howe's direction, two city inspectors showed up at the Ackerman house. Two days later, Ackerman received a letter from the Board of Health at Howe's debut citing him for a rarely-enforced city ordinance against five or more unrelated adults living together without a "boarding house" license. Only when Ackerman hired a lawyer to challenge Howe's actions did the city rule in his favor.
Howe still maintains that Ackerman was operating a boarding house, despite a ruling to the contrary by the city solicitor's office.
Marie Howe denies playing any role in the Ackerman incident, but told The Crimson that "Mr. Ackerman's house was loaded with German swastikas.... They were in adoration of Adolf Hitler," Ackerman's wife, Kathy Moore says that there are no swastikas in her house and never have been: "That's just the craziest thing I ever heard. ... The poor woman apparently doesn't know the difference between the (political) right and the left." Indeed, most of the members of their household are Jewish. (Marie Howe adds that even if the Ackermans are Nazis, "that's not why it [the assessment] went up ... I'm not saying anything against Ackerman.")CrimsonAnthea LetsouFor years, the Howe family has feuded with the weekly Somerville Journal. The newspaper's front page coverage of Marie Howe's arrest for disorderly conduct when she bit a police officer especially angered the Howes. After her brother was elected a city tax assessor, he increased the Journal's assessment by more than $10,000. "He singled us out, there's no question about it," says one newspaper staffer. "He didn't do the same to other businesses."