Lessons from another City Hall under siege

In the early 1980s, the last term in office for Mayor Kevin H. White (left) was defined by a corruption probe by the US attorney at the time, William Weld (right).
In the early 1980s, the last term in office for Mayor Kevin H. White (left) was defined by a corruption probe by the US attorney at the time, William Weld (right).GEORGE PATISTEAS/GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION; GLOBE FILE PHOTOS

Paul Grogan remembers the FBI removing files in a handcart from a city office. Micho Spring remembers how tedious the document requests were from investigators. George Regan remembers how a federal probe was both “painful” and “unsettling” for City Hall staffers.

They should know: They were all top aides to the late Boston Mayor Kevin H. White, whose fourth — and last — term in office in the early 1980s was defined by an obsessive corruption probe by the US attorney at the time, Bill Weld.

Weld’s investigation — it began with suspicions about the funding of a birthday party for White’s wife and soon spread to allegations about fraudulent disability pensions and bribery — led to the indictment or conviction of more than a dozen low-level operatives.


No charges were filed against White.

I bring this up because of US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s ongoing corruption probe of Boston City Hall, which is making another mayor and generation of city employees feel under siege. Based on history, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

On Thursday, John Lynch, a former employee of the Boston Planning & Development Agency, is expected to plead guilty in US District Court to accepting a $50,000 bribe to help a developer receive a favorable vote by the Zoning Board of Appeal. He faces 46 to 57 months in prison under an agreement with federal prosecutors.

This comes on the heels of another Lelling case that led to the trial and conviction of two top aides to Mayor Marty Walsh — Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan — for conspiring to extort organizers of the Boston Calling music festival. A sentencing date has not been set yet.

I can’t help but think city employees must be looking over their shoulders and wondering who’s next.


The weight of this moment could bring the daily grind of City Hall to a halt, and that would be unfortunate.

“This is a huge distraction, I’m sure. It produces a lot of anxiety,” said Spring, who served as White’s chief of staff.

“The advice would be to focus on the mission and keep your eye on that, which is to move Boston forward.”

Spring, who is president of PR giant Weber Shandwick’s New England office, recalls how a lot of time was spent assembling documents for investigators and holding the hands of staffers who were being called by Weld’s office to testify.

But beyond those tense episodes, Spring said, she was buoyed by what the administration was able to accomplish “in spite of” the investigation, such as helping the city survive a fiscal crisis spurred by Proposition 2½, ushering in an era of neighborhood policing, and creating a vision of Boston as a world-class city.

“I feel like we planted the seeds for a new Boston despite all that angst,” Spring said.

Grogan had been working in the White administration for several years and was ready to leave after being accepted into Stanford Business School. Grogan said that because of his good relationship with the press and the business community, White implored him to defer school for a year, saying, “I need people like you to get me through this.”

“When he asked me to stay, the number one clear message was: ‘Do your job, and don’t let this distract you from the very important work,’ ” Grogan recounted.


At times, it was hard to focus. Several mornings, FBI agents came into the office unannounced, rifled through files and whisked them away, said Grogan, who was the city’s director of neighborhood development.

“It was like out of a movie,” he said. “It was hard to maintain [the appearance] that nothing was happening.”

Grogan, the longtime CEO of the nonprofit Boston Foundation, never did go to business school, but he said he has no regrets.

He also believes that Weld’s attention helped clean up mayoral administrations post-White.

“The lack of municipal corruption has sped this city’s renaissance,” Grogan said. “Whatever is there, get to the bottom of it and deal with it properly.”

For Regan, who was White’s press secretary, the worst part was that the investigation felt like it kept going and going.

“There is never a beginning or an end — relentless everyday,” said Regan, who now runs his own public relations firm.

Regan has two pieces of advice for current City Hall workers:

■  Never speak to the FBI without a lawyer, and remember that a US attorney is not your friend. “They are looking for headlines,” he said.

■  Mayor Walsh should keep up his public appearances. (Judging by the four events on his Tuesday schedule and five on Wednesday, he is doing that.)

Regan recalled how White resisted being out in public, something that his aides had to push back on. “If he did nothing wrong, why hide in the bunker?” Regan reasoned.


Regan, Spring, and Grogan were part of a crop of talented young White aides. They told me that the experience of working under the microscope left an indelible mark on their professional lives.

“It helped me grow. I became a stronger person,” Regan said. “Kevin would say ‘toughen up,’ and I did.”

John Vitagliano spent a dozen years working for White in a variety of jobs, the last one overseeing the Transportation Department. Echoing the others, Vitagliano remembered how White reiterated to everyone “to do our jobs.”

White also kept department heads like Vitagliano in the loop on the investigation and had city attorneys conduct regular briefings that helped dispel the rumors that were flying, internally and externally. The transparency was appreciated.

“That is one of the reasons we could do our jobs,” said Vitagliano, who is now a transportation consultant. “Mayor White took a leadership role in that.”

How Marty Walsh reacts will set the tone for employees who are trying to do good work under a cloud — and play a big part in determining his legacy.

Paralysis isn’t an option.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.