Patronage, Nepotism and Conflict of Interest

The Impropriety of a Political Family

A six-week investigation by The Crimson has revealed a consistent picture of conflict-of-interest, nepotism and misuse of public office by one of Somerville's most powerful political families. Second of a two-part series.

Somerville city records clearly show that city tax assessor John J. Howe has systematically used his assessment powers to reward the political friends and punish the political opponents of his sister, Democratic State Rep. Marie E. Howe of Somerville.

In all of these cases, the Howes maintain that individual and assessment changes were warranted, and were not imposed for political or personal purposes. Legally, there is no way to determine whether John Howe abused the assessing process unless the state's Corporation and Taxation Department decides to intervene--something it has carefully avoided so far. While it is true that in small towns like Somerville assessors will always wind up judging the value of the property of friends and neighbors, in the Howes' case there has been a clear and consistent pattern of lowering the taxes on personal friends and raising the taxes on political foes.

However, that John Howe has been able to wield his assessment powers as a powerful political tool is also the fault of a system that has few built-in checks to curb abuse of discretionary powers. Property assessment in Somerville is conducted by assigning the city's five assessors to their own districts in the city. Although property assessments are subject to revision by the full board, individual assessors usually have virtual carte blanche in changing property values.

Like most Massachusetts cities, Somerville has established no qualification standards for tax assessors, and assessors are elected--often on the basis of political connections--rather than appointed because of professional competence. Even John Howe says he would like to have assessors receive more training than their one-week crash course in real estate at the University of Massachusetts.

Still, John Howe's personal unfamiliarity with the assessment process is unusual. Alderman Puglia calls Howe "the most unqualified assessor in the history of Massachusetts." In a deposition under oath during assessment victim Cosmo Capobianco's libel suit against Howe, Howe admitted that he has had "very little" training in the real estate business, and that he did not know the most important and elementary concept an assessor must learn--the three basic methods of appraising the value of real estate.

John Howe is apparently even incapable of writing the occasional press releases he has issued in the course of his term as tax assessor. Reports persist that his statements have in fact been authored by his sister Marie and her close friend Leonard Scott. However, John Howe denies the reports. But under cross-examination by Howe enemy Cosmo Capobianco's lawyers during his March 1977 lawsuit proceedings in Middlesex Country Superior Court, Howe revealed that he did not know the meanings of many of the words used in his own press releases:

Q. Could you tell me what a "protege" is?

A. A protege of the mayor--someone who looks up to him. That's what I feel it means.

Q. Could you tell me what you mean by "inept"?

A. Where is that?

Q. Do you know what the word "inept" means?

A. No, I don't really.

Q. How about the word "syndicate"?

A. Someone who controls everything.

Q. And could you tell us what the word "interactions" means?

A. Interactions through one person to another.

Q. What is an interaction?

A. I would believe it's describing a person for what he does. I could be wrong on that now.

Nor does John Howe's questionable conduct appear to be limited to his real estate duties. In April 1977, Metropolitan District Commissioner John Snedeker discovered that John Howe was without approval in leaving his full-time patronage job as a "water sampler" early in order to collect an additional $5500 annually as a tax assessor. Howe knocked off early from his 8 a.m.-to-4 p.m., $270-a-week job twice a month for a year, Snedeker reported. Snedeker also found that Howe was using an MDC truck for his separate assessing duties.

Although Snedeker and MDC press spokesman Michael Goldman refuse to discuss the case, which is still pending in court, the Crimson has learned that Snedeker originally planned to fire Howe outright. But in an emotional meeting with the commissioner, Howe tearfully begged that his pregnant wife be spared the emotional trauma of a public hearing on his misbehavior. Despite advice from his aides that he ought to fire Howe, Snedeker relented and agreed to reprimand Howe with a 20-day suspension and a fine--provided Howe signed a statement admitting his guilt. Howe hastily complied.

Just five eays later, however, Howe announced that he had obtained well-known Boston lawyer William Homans, and was filing suit against Snedeker for $25,000 in personal damages. Despite his written statement to the contrary, Howe now says that he still worked a full day, because he worked during his lunch hour to make up for the time he missed by leaving work early. But that is not what he told Snedeker in their private meeting. One reliable MDC source says Howe's after-the-fact assertion that he made up the lost time during his lunch breaks is "full of shit."

Like the MDC's Snedeker and Goldman, Howe says that because the case is pending in court, he cannot comment on the incident. "Anything I say might hurt me," Howe explained.

Although John Howe asserts that his actions are his own doing, Somerville insiders say that it is really his elder sister Marie who runs the family's political business. "John's a good kid, a simple kid," says one Somerville assessor. "It's Marie who's the heavy." Yet if Marie has used John for her own political ends, she has also been unafraid to engage in petty but questionable conduct of her own.

Every St. Patrick's Day, Marie Howe holds an Irish celebration, complete with Gay '90s music. Tickets sell for $10, which is less than the $15 campaign-donation disclosure fee and thus allows participants to avoid having their names filed with the state elections commission.

At the celebration itself, Marie raffles off a trip to Ireland. Massachusetts law allows such raffles only for church, charity, educational, civic, fraternal or veterans purposes. There is no provision for political raffles. Even if political raffles were legal, however, the law requires that the sponsoring organization purchase a raffle license. Marie Howe has no such license.

Howe at first acknowledged that she holds a yearly raffle. But when pointed out that she has no raffle license, Howe changed her story and said, "It's not a raffle. It's a door prize."

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In the last four years, Marie Howe has been sued three times for defaulting on payments for improvements on her properties. The infractions were minor, but still typify the approach the Howes take in their business and political practices.

In 1974, Somerville Lumber Company sued Marie Howe and her friend Walter Silva for almost $3500, for not paying for a shipment of lumber and other building materials. Howe now admits that she in fact received the goods from Somerville Lumber after ordering them. But in sworn testimony "signed under the pains and penalties of perjury," Howe denied ever receiving the building materials. The case was eventually settled out of court. Somerville Lumber owner Harold Cohen refused to talk about the suit, apparently fearing retribution by the Howe family. "I admit it," he said. "I'm a coward."

In 1974, Marie Howe was also sued by the Ralph Champa Construction Company for not paying a $986 bill after Champa constructed a stairway in her real estate office. Howe alleged that the late Champa promised the construction for free as an in-kind campaign contribution, a charge that Champa denied. "He was never involved in politics," says his son, Ralph Champa Jr. "He might give a contribution for $10, but he wouldn't give $1000 worth of construction for free." And Marie Howe now admits that Champa had never contributed to her political campaigns in the past.

Somerville District Court found Howe guilty, and Howe paid Champa $750 in damages. "When you're in business, these things happen," Howe explains.

In 1976, Hugh Gillen, a carpenter, sued Marie Howe for not paying him for $1700 worth of painting and wall-papering. Gillen says Howe at first told him to do an extensive remodeling job, but that halfway through--when he told her he had already done $1000 worth of construction--she told him it was too expensive. "After she told me [to cut back] I did the bare minimum, because if she didn't want me to do a lot, I didn't want to do it, either," Gillen says. But Howe said Gillen's work was shoddy, and she refused to pay the $1700.

Gillen's suit against Howe was successful, and she was ordered to pay Gillen for his work.

Political patronage is a way of life in Somerville, and the Howe family is no exception. All three of Marie's brothers appear to have profited by their sister's public office. Two of her brothers, William and Desmond, have jobs with the State Police. William was hired in 1966, the year after his sister first began to serve in the legislature; Desmond was hired three years later. Marie denies using her influence to get either of her two brothers jobs with the state police, a denial Somerville insiders find highly questionable considering the frequency of such patronage appointments.

Marie Howe also denies any impropriety in the hiring of Ralph Scott, son of her close personal friend Leonard Scott, as a page in the state legislature last summer. Howe says Scott was hired by House Speaker Thomas McGee, although she admits that "I may have put in a call to McGee" on Scott's behalf. Howe calls her companion's son "very capable. We were lucky to get him." Scott worked directly in Marie Howe's office.

It was while Marie Howe served on the House Rules Committee, the panel that dispenses patronage positions, that her brother John was hired by the MDC's Division of Environmental Quality, for his celebrated job as a "water-sampler," from which he was later suspended. Marie admits getting her brother his MDC job by making a "recommendation" to then-Governor Francis W. Sargent that her brother be hired.

Marie Howe says she "doesn't recall" what she said to Sargent in her recommendation of her brother, but she denies any unethical conduct on her part. "I have helped loads of people get jobs in this city," she says.

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Despite all of the indications of possible impropriety, the Howes retain just as strong a political stranglehold on Somerville as when they first came to power ten years ago. In September, Marie Howe survived a tough battle for re-nomination to the state legislature after her district lines were re-drawn, and she seems certain to be re-elected this Tuesday. John Howe, meanwhile, is safely anchored to his assessor's job for at least another year, until the next election.

That the Howe family is still powerful in Somerville is due at least inpart to their ability to avoid the subject of political corruption altogether. Marie Howe has for years been able to evade the question of personal ethics by making the issue one of ethnicity, accusing opposing Italian political families of "plots" and "vendettas" against her. In fact, she says, "It's an issue of the good people versus the bad people, with us being the good people.... They hate me because I'm totally uncorruptable."

John Howe's defense, characteristically, is more humble. "I haven't been summonsed yet," he says. "I'm still doing my job.... I'm still walking the streets."

Yet if Marie Howe has used her brother John for her own political ends, she has also been unafraid to engage in petty but questionable conduct of her own.