Supreme Judicial Court Adds Chapter to Michael McLaughlin Saga

(Update, February 20, 2013: There’s outrage at the U.S. Attorney’s very light plea recommendation, which does not even require McLaughlin to repay the money he stole. A sample (letter to Globe editor today):

“As longtime lawyers for public housing tenants, we are appalled at the light sentence being recommended for Michael McLaughlin, former head of the Chelsea Housing Authority. The Globe has reported that he paid himself up to $164,000 a year above his authorized salary, out of funds designated to modernize decrepit housing units. He also lied about it to state and federal authorities, seldom came to work, and paid himself for all accrued sick and vacation time on the way out the door.

Is it because his victims were living in public housing that his proposed sentence is so microscopic? He should be held to the same standard as any of his tenants. If any of them failed to report so much as a nickel of income, he went after them with unbridled fury, exacting payback and sometimes eviction.

This deal is stated to be in return for providing information. What information? Implicating one or more high-ranking politicians might justify a decrease in the otherwise recommended jail time. But letting McLaughlin keep all the money he stole is unconscionable. He must be forced to pay full restitution.

Jay Rose, Managing attorney, Housing Unit, Greater Boston Legal Services, Boston
Marcia Peters, Clinical instructor, Harvard Law School, Cambridge”)

Original Post: February 14, 2013

Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision in the case of Rivas v. Chelsea Housing Authority, ruling in favor of tenant Elizabeth Rivas, who claimed that the Authority wrongfully attempted to evict her.

You probably recall that the Chelsea Housing Authority until recently was run by a guy named Michael McLaughlin. McLaughlin resigned late in 2011 after it came to light that he had arranged an annual salary for himself of $360,000 (while informing federal and state officials that he was making $160,000). He has also been accused of diverting millions of dollars of federal money intended for long-overdue improvements to housing authority stock in order to create a slush fund for himself, his family and his friends. He is also under investigation for campaign finance violations involving Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray.

The Court’s opinion takes us inside the housing authority during McLaughlin’s tenure, confirming a Globe story from late 2011 on his despotic rule: low-income and elderly tenants living under constant threat of eviction and fearing to pursue “legitimate grievances against the housing authority due to the imbalance of power and the specter of retaliation.”

Tenant Elizabeth Rivas was among the few not afraid to pursue a legitimate grievance. She received notice from the housing authority in 2009 that she was to be evicted for allowing her mother to stay in her apartment at times. The authority claimed that this violated a rule requiring that tenants report any changes in the composition of their households. But, as the court ruled, the authority could not point to any law “defining and governing when an overnight guest becomes a household member.” The authority could not even take a consistent position on the question, testifying, the record shows, to three different — and contradictory — definitions of the standard. When an overnight guest became a household member at the Chelsea Housing Authority, in other words, depended on who you were.

The authority also exercised its discretionary and ad hoc enforcement practices in deciding whether a tenant would be offered an “informal settlement conference” to resolve issues or work out compromises, even though it housing authorities are required to offer this opportunity in every case. In Chelsea, if you got such an offer, things might work out okay, but if you didn’t even get an offer….well, pretty much goodbye. McLaughlin himself emphasized the importance of these informal settlement conferences (in a piece of testimony that his lawyers could not have been happy about), “noting that they provide an opportunity to determine not simply whether the tenant was in violation, but whether the tenant made a ‘mistake’ and was ‘going to go on and be a good resident.'” The Rivas family, it had already been concluded, was undeserving of this chance.

The court’s opinion (by Justice Robert Cordy) paints McLaughlin in full autocratic mode — applying his own rules, deciding who is “going to go on and be a good resident” and who is not, and allocating the process that was “due” accordingly. We can hope that because of Elizabeth Rivas’ courage, fewer housing authority residents will feel the imbalance of power and specter of retaliation that typified Chelsea during the McLaughlin years.

SIDEBAR: As part of its effort to restrict access to the family emergency shelter system, the Patrick-Murray administration recently asked housing authorities to allow residents to share their apartments with homeless persons who otherwise would be in need of shelter — exactly the situation that brought trouble to Elizabeth Rivas. Housing authorities are now encouraged to extend the time before a guest becomes a household member — “you can, at your discretion, grant guest privileges when the 21-day period does not adequate recognize the urgency of the situation.” We can imagine how that discretion would have been exercised by Michael McLaughlin.

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