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.