Hack Attack

Logan bigwig Craig Coy stands atop the global map carved in the floor of the airport's international terminal, fidgeting like an expectant birth- day boy whose cake is about to be served. In a moment, the Massachusetts Port Authority CEO will announce the best financial news to land at the beleaguered airport since fanatical hijackers reduced the World Trade Center to a mass grave after coasting through Logan's security checkpoints two years ago this month: The federal government has agreed to reimburse Massport for most of the $146 million it has laid out to become the nation's only airport that screens all passenger baggage. Shelling out that dough in the first place, with no guarantee of a federal reimbursement, was a huge roll of the dice for Coy. But he knows something about taking risks. He flew dangerous rescue and drug- interdiction missions as a helicopter commander during two decades with the Coast Guard. Now he has the thankless job of cleaning up Massport, a notorious patronage haven before 9/11 and, since then, an international symbol of the fatal consequences that can result when political connections trump competence. It hasn't exactly been a milk run. Massport includes the Port of Boston, the Tobin Memorial Bridge, and Bedford's Hanscom Field. But its major revenue center is Logan, which was already feeling the effects of a recessionary economy when the terrorists breezed through on their way to New York. The ensuing collapse of the airline industry and, in particular, of Logan's bread-and-butter international travel business, left the authority in fiscal free fall. The Carter Commission, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by then?acting Governor Jane Swift in the wake of the terrorist attacks, was scathing in its criticism of the agency's bloated, inept management and hack-infested political culture. Coy inherited an organizational image problem as big as those at Enron, Firestone, even the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. So it's no wonder Coy agrees to postpone the good-news grant announcement when he's told that one last TV crew is running late. “Somebody else is coming? We'll wait,” he says. When all the cameras finally start rolling, Senator Ted Kennedy launches into praise for Massport, congratulating Coy for going “out on a limb” to install his state-of-the-art security without a federal financial guarantee. Logan is on the way back, the senator says. “You can't even get on a plane back here [from Washington] on Fridays. They're absolutely packed,” he gushes. “There isn't an empty seat. I've sat in the middle seat the last three times.” It's an image that draws self-conscious giggles from the crowd. Coy himself looks straight at the cameras and barks, ˆ la the late Ernie Boch Sr.: “Logan is open for business. Come on out!” It's a happy moment, one that captures the advances in tightening security and professionalizing management made by Massport in the past two years. But like any staged tableau, it's not the full picture. As Coy and Kennedy exchange figurative high-fives, a clerk at the currency exchange desk in the international terminal is engrossed in the Avon catalog, with no customers in sight. International travel has evaporated to the point where you could stage a street-hockey tournament on the sprawling Terminal E concourse without hitting anybody. Contrary to Kennedy's rhetoric, domestic traffic also remains in a slump. “In the last year or two,” Coy acknowledges, “we've been hit with a perfect storm of problems.” Economic recovery will eventually ease that crunch. Yet while Massport's shedding of slovenly habits is cause for celebration, some key political figures want to crash the party. They're hungry again for the patronage hires that have historically larded Massport's budget and given it, fairly or not, a lingering public image as the hack hangout that waved the savages through on 9/11. The consequences then were beyond imagination, embarrassing Massachusetts on the world stage. This doesn't seem to matter now, or at least the memories are fading fast. And if they get their way, the hacks could soon be back in charge at Massport.
While Coy has been busy installing card-access biometric systems, training security guards to spot suspicious characteristics (chapped lips, flushed face, throbbing carotid arteries), and arming the airport's state troopers with nasty-looking MP5 SD3 submachine guns, Bobby DeLeo has been looking for ways to bring Coy to heel. DeLeo, a Democratic state representative from Winthrop, is the legislative point man for an ongoing effort to make Massport, as he puts it, “more responsive to public officials.” The way he is seeking to do this is with a little-noticed bill that would create a 26- member “advisory board” stacked with local pols, a move that could jeopardize Massport's quasi-independent status and undermine public and investor confidence. The bill, which passed the House twice last year before dying in the Senate, has been resurrected this year. It could set the table for renewed feasting on patronage jobs, a banquet that's been shut down since Coy's arrival. Indeed, another DeLeo bill bluntly orders Massport to “establish priority hiring plans for residents of communities most affected by the operation of said authorities.” That's just the sort of featherbedding the Carter Commission angrily concluded had “eroded public confidence in Massport, created morale problems for qualified and dedicated employees, and contributed to the inefficiency of the organization.” But the Carter Commission report is now publicly dismissed by the likes of DeLeo as worthless wallpaper. “I just felt it was sort of window-dressing,” he says. “I don't think we needed to have a commission talk about what needed to be done.” Coy took the Carter Commission's admonitions about patronage to heart. He established a series of job-applicant hurdles designed to screen out clueless nieces of gubernatorial allies and idiot legislator brothers-in-law. He has detailed political patronage requests in regular reports to the Massport board of directors, and politely but firmly rejected personal lobbying efforts. “I tell them, 'I just want to make sure we've got the ground rules right,'” says Coy. “'You're not asking me, Mr. or Mrs. Politician, to hire somebody for a job for which they're not qualified, and surely you're not asking me to hire somebody for a job that doesn't exist?'” In Massachusetts? Perish the thought. But DeLeo finds this attitude unacceptably rude. “I'm not particularly pleased that the recommendations I make go nowhere,” he says. “I get a form letter back from Craig Coy, 'Thanks very much, I'll consider it,' and that's the last you ever hear of it. It is a sore point for folks like me.” He's not alone. “I've never felt that anyone who knows a politician is inherently incapable of doing anything,” says Congressman Michael Capuano, whose district includes Logan and its surroundings. “Why do you have to have a politically isolated agency? I support anything that will get the community to the table.” But Coy insists that renewed political encroachment could set back public and bond-market confidence in Massport. If DeLeo's advisory board scheme passes, he says, it could make Wall Street's bond-rating agencies “skittish that we might not remain focused on what we're doing.” Former Massport CEO Peter Blute is more blunt. “What Wall Street wants to hear is that the authority is independent of political ramifications,” Blute says. “If that bill passed, it would be a disaster.” Blute gives Coy high marks for being able to “fend off the pressure.” That's a subject Blute knows something about. Under his watch at Massport, an aviation-experience?free Jane Swift was hired for a well-paid regional-aviation?management position that had never existed before and hasn't been occupied since she moved on to bigger failures. According to reports, Swift was hired at the direct request of then-Governor Paul Cellucci. (For that matter, Governor William Weld, a self-proclaimed reformer, so thoroughly embraced the view of Massport as a political cookie jar that at one point, claims Blute, he considered grabbing the Massport CEO's job for himself after yielding the governorship to Cellucci.) “That was the misperception of the Carter Commission, that if you changed Massport, you'd be changing the political culture of the city,” says a former top aide to both Weld and Cellucci who went on to work for Massport. “That's just not possible. You can insulate it a little, but you can never fully protect it.”
The airport's post-9/11 financial collapse, and the 15 percent workforce cut and freeze on new positions that resulted, has put the brakes on the traditional Massport feeding frenzy — for now. But no one doubts that the wolf is poised at Massport's threshold, waiting for the door to open a crack. Since the poison-pill Massport advisory board bill died in the Senate last year, leadership of that branch has passed to Senator Bobby Travaglini of East Boston, whose appetite for Massport jobs for his cronies and constituents is legendary. While the ever-optimistic Coy says he believes the political establishment “respects what we're trying to do,” he acknowledges that patronage pressures are “gonna be there.” The only thing that might keep Beacon Hill at bay is the continued fear of terrorism. “Commercial cargo still goes mostly unchecked,” Congressman Stephen Lynch noted amid the backslapping at the federal funding celebration. “That's the next big problem area.” It's an issue that will also cost a bundle to address. Meanwhile, there's little reason to think that fresh turbulence global instability, or, heaven forbid, another terrorist attack on commercial aviation won't prolong Coy's “perfect storm.” Coy likes to think that the change in Massport's pork-barrel image is permanent. “From my standpoint, history begins when you show up,” he says. “People should want Massport to succeed.” But he has touched down in highly politicized territory, where the natives view success in terms of the control they can exert and the goodies they can extract. The jet bombs the terrorists dropped on lower Manhattan two years ago claimed Massport patronage as collateral damage. But just as cockroaches survive all attempts to exterminate them, the hacks are waiting in the shadows. After all, as Capuano points out, it may be “the in thing” right now to extol the virtues of an independent, patronage-free Massport. “But it ignores reality.” B