The Muckraker: The Speaker Gets the Last Word

Sitting in Legal Sea Foods in Kendall Square, not far from the new office he occupies as president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, Tommy Finneran is cheerfully wolfing down a huge plate of grilled salmon. He has pinot noir in his glass, a smile on his face, and score-settling on his mind.

The former speaker has already dropped a few bombshells and a surprising mea culpa or two when the topic turns to last year's legislative races and Governor Mitt Romney's unsuccessful bid to erode the Democrats' hold on the House and Senate. Some of the Republican challengers Romney backed ran markedly negative campaigns, and that “will sit with some as debt to be repaid,” says Finneran, who resigned as speaker in September. “The membership perceives Romney as being aligned with the business community, so they become hostile to that community.” The legislators' thirst for revenge, he adds, is aimed at one very specific target: Fidelity Investments, which was a major donor to the GOP.

Finneran's mood darkens. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and later as speaker, he helped win major tax breaks for key sectors of the state economy — the manufacturing, defense, and mutual-fund industries — that are especially vulnerable to competition from states with lower taxes. For Fidelity alone, the cuts have saved tens of millions of dollars and fueled a 37 percent increase in the company's local workforce. But without those corporate taxes coming in, the legislature has had less to spend on popular social programs. While previous efforts to roll back some of the concessions have faltered, Finneran fears that could soon change. “Some members look askance at that and say, 'Gee, we need revenue, and why would we countenance a continuation of this policy?' So they go after the policy, and in the end what you reap is the loss of good jobs and hundreds of millions in revenue.”

It's a prospect that troubles Fidelity. “We don't understand an economic policy that would seek to make the playing field uneven for the hometown company,” says spokesman John Brockelman. It's also exactly the kind of partisan flash fire Finneran was so adept at extinguishing during his eight years as speaker. Before he stepped down, all he had to do to prevent a no-winners battle between Beacon Hill and a blue-chip corporate citizen was summon the key players to his lair on the third floor of the State House and knock heads. Now, as the new legislative session begins to pick up momentum without him, he can only shake his own nearly bald cranium and swirl the pinot in his glass. It is no longer his place, he says later, to “speak up and say 'Hey, I think you're making a mistake.'”

Tommy Finneran silenced? That'll be the day. The man is a mouth on steroids who has contemplated hosting his own radio talk show someday. Getting him to spout off was never a problem during the headline-making moments that defined his rule. Yet for all his notorious glibness, Finneran has been reticent to publicly revisit those controversies or reveal details of what really went on behind the scenes. He's proven even more reluctant to analyze how his own foibles affected his tenure. Until now.

Perhaps emboldened by the unabashed use of the term by the Red Sox, Finneran confesses to having been “an idiot on any number of occasions,” such as when he made “fat-ass millionaire” part of the local political lexicon while tussling with Patriots owner Bob Kraft over public funding for a new stadium. That was “not helpful to the issue, not helpful to the position I had taken,” Finneran recalls. “It made it look as if I had a personal edge or grudge.” Now, as then, Finneran insists he was referring not to Kraft, but to ex-Browns owner Art Modell, who extracted huge subsidies from Baltimore in exchange for moving his NFL franchise there from Cleveland. But maybe the shoe fit better than he let on. “I don't know if it struck me as inapplicable after the fact,” the former speaker says, flashing a sarcastic grin.

One of the most memorable moments of the Finneran era was the 1997 debate over reinstating capital punishment, a drive fueled by the murder of a 10-year-old Cambridge boy, Jeffrey Curley, by a couple of pedophiles. On October 28 of that year, the House voted 81-79 to restore the death penalty after a more-than-two-decade-long absence. Under chamber rules, a second vote was required nine days later. During that time, Democratic Representative John Slattery, who had been a passionate proponent of capital punishment, abruptly changed his mind. He wound up casting the deciding vote against the bill. Blame for Slattery's flip-flop centered on Finneran, an ardent death-penalty opponent. But Finneran now claims the key player in Slattery's epiphany was actually current House Speaker Sal DiMasi, a revelation that bodes ill for Governor Romney's bid to resurrect capital punishment. “Sal's the unsung hero,” says Finneran. “Sal's a very good attorney, Slattery's a good attorney, and they could talk to each other the way good attorneys do.”

The power struggles of annual budget deliberations often landed Finneran in hot water, and never more so than during the infamous “Animal House” session, a nickname earned after a gaggle of punchy legislators broke into a spontaneous chant of “to-ga, to-ga, to-ga!” on the House floor. According to press accounts, the all-night deliberations also included excessive drinking during meal breaks by some members, who committed other juvenile shenanigans including — though not limited to — shaving the legs of one sleeping state rep.

At the time, Finneran ripped reporters for their “highly inaccurate and inflammatory reporting.” “Where does a person go to reclaim his name and reputation once it's been smeared . . . with inappropriate or incorrect or incomplete information?” he raged. But Finneran now admits that he changed House procedures in the wake of the incident, requiring the members of his leadership team to chaperone their fellow representatives through late-night sessions with alcohol-free catered dinners in their offices. “They got into competitions about what food they were going to provide. Somebody brought up steamed lobsters one time,” he recalls proudly. As for the reports about the shearing performed on Representative Anthony Petrucelli, which Finneran professed to find so slanderous — were those stories true? Petrucelli has no comment. But Finneran, when pressed, nods affirmatively, rolling his eyes.

Looking back on his many run-ins with the Fourth Estate, Finneran says he regrets adopting the contempt for reporters held by former Senate President William Bulger. “One of the biggest mistakes I made was I developed early on a perception about the media — call it a Bulger view of the world of the press — that they had no legitimate interest in trying to inform or educate or provide perspective. I should have made a more concerted effort to call somebody in the chain of command and say 'Hey, look, enough is enough, write what's fair, write what I said or what I did, but don't let your employees interpret my motives.'” Yet for all that self-flagellation, Finneran's temper still flares at the memory of how the media handled several chapters of his flamboyant tenure.

During Finneran's confrontation with Kraft, some pundits suggested the speaker's antipathy toward the Patriots owner had anti-Semitic overtones. “It was 180 degrees inaccurate, but it cuts, it cuts into your heart and your soul and your reputation,” says Finneran, who has often noted his convivial relationship with Kraft's wife, Myra, who he once accompanied on a fact-finding visit to Israel. “There's always going to be somebody out there who actually believes it.” Finneran also remains incensed at charges he manipulated the boundaries of his racially mixed district to increase his white constituency — a move some read as evidence of underlying prejudice. “There's not a scintilla's worth of difference between my wife and her outlook on life and what's important and the black woman who happens to live across the street,” snaps Finneran, who lives on a racially diverse block in Mattapan. “I knew this from my faith, my upbringing, my observations. Those claims bothered the hell out of me.”

In Finneran's view, it was his gutting of the voter-approved Clean Elections Law “that took the greatest toll on my name and reputation.” The measure, approved in a 1998 referendum, grants public money to campaigns that abide by fundraising rules and is meant to dilute the influence of special interests. To this day, Finneran's view of it remains unchanged. “To take millions of dollars of tax money to finance people who you would not hire to run the late shift at Dunkin' Donuts, never mind public policy — most of them knew it was a phony reform. They were just feeling the way the wind was blowing from Morrissey Boulevard” — home of the Boston Globe — “instead of standing up to the heat.”

Citing his lawyer's instructions, Finneran won't comment on the federal probe into whether he committed perjury when he told a federal court he had nothing to do with the much-maligned redistricting plan. But he does offer this: “Critics may say 'Oh, he was controversial,' or 'Gee, I didn't like the way he ran the House.' But it's a question of style, not integrity. Nobody ever said, 'This place is running on something funny.'”

If the investigation comes up empty, as Finneran insists it will, his legacy will indeed be free of the ethical taint that clings to some of his predecessors. But the candor he displays over his grilled salmon does reveal one aspect of the Finneran era he worked hard to keep buried: persistent self-doubt. The seemingly dictatorial control freak who reveled in street fights with his adversaries now says he wishes he'd used more honey than vinegar. Some of what were seen as his most audacious moves, he maintains, were either purely defensive maneuvers or false credit for something someone else did. Whether he's talking about his outburst at the media over the “Animal House” session or the reversal of the death penalty vote, the former speaker sounds as if he wishes he could go back and find a way to avoid the Finneran bashing he set off with his brashness.

But make no mistake: Finneran knows those days of whine and rostrums are over. Should his former colleagues fulfill his prophecy and seek their pound of flesh from Fidelity and others, don't look to him to deliver one of his trademark scoldings. It's up to his successors –“the legislators who are gonna take over,” he says — to answer now.