The Reilly Factor

Everybody knows that state politics are really debated on sports radio anyway. This time, sports fans had a real issue to bat around. By threatening to block the sale of the Red Sox with a lawsuit, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly had just pried an extra $30 million for the trust and charitable foundation that were the main beneficiaries of the sale. The next day, Red Sox attorney Daniel Goldberg was crowing on sports-radio station WEEI, unbowed by the compromise. “I'm not going to talk about the AG's motivation in this,” he said. “But if the AG had a terrific case, presumably he would have brought it.” After all, the deal stopped short of giving Reilly the veto power he had sought over new appointees to the foundation's board.

Less than 48 hours later, after an angry retort from Reilly, Goldberg toned down his rhetoric, promising “unequivocally” that “we intend to live up to our part of the agreement.”

In the intervening hours, Reilly had issued a reminder that he could still bring suit to stop the sale of the team. “We can do things the easy way,” he said, “or we can do things the hard way.”

It was no idle threat. Reilly has been doing things the hard way his whole life. He was elected attorney general on a reputation as a hard-as-nails prosecutor of high-profile murder defendants, and since taking office he has boldly and repeatedly inserted himself into controversial situations in which other politicians have sat on their hands. But then, as even his friends admit, Reilly is very unlike other politicians. In a business that depends on the ability to broker two-martini deals, he's a “Just the facts, Ma'am” kind of guy: quiet, tough, unflashy. He wears a Casio digital watch. He and his wife, a Belmont schoolteacher, each drive 1999 Toyota Camrys — his beige, hers blue. And when he insists he's not measuring the corner office at the State House for curtains, people actually believe him.

His understated approach is both a strength and a weakness. He can come off, in public at least, as a cold fish. “I don't think he's a natural politician,” says former state Senator and Watertown neighbor George Bachrach. “He doesn't build the alliances very easily. He doesn't care very much for the backslapping, deal-trading life of the everyday politician.” Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans puts it more strongly. “Tom Reilly,” he says, “is the least political person I know who happens to be a politician.”

Those who have worked closely with him, however, paint a picture that's different from the one the public usually sees. Behind his tough-guy fa쳌ade, they see a man driven by a deeply personal empathy for those he seeks to help.

Born on Valentine's Day, 1942, to Irish immigrant parents in Springfield, Thomas Francis Reilly never knew the brother who gave him his middle name. But his experience with tragedy began eight weeks before he was born.

John Francis Reilly was probably thinking about Christmas as he rode his bicycle home through freezing rain that coated the street with a slippery sheen. It was the day before Christmas Eve, 1941, and the 14-year-old was returning from his job delivering packages after school. As he passed through the blocks of warehouses and garages on the way to his house on Federal Street, the rain may have obscured his view of the pedestrian crossing the street. Or maybe Reilly saw him but skidded on the ice as he tried to veer out of the way.

The collision flung the boy directly into the path of a small truck. That impact alone was enough to kill him, but the force of the truck's momentum dragged him 60 feet farther down the road. His young body was so mangled that the police had to jack up the rear of the truck to free it.

As the Reilly family spent Christmas planning a closed-casket funeral, the front page of the Springfield newspaper carried the picture of an apple-cheeked boy in his church tie, his wavy hair parted on the side. The accompanying story identified him as a former newsboy who had delivered the paper to the police station, where he was so popular that the officers took up a collection to give him candy and fruit when he was once laid up in the hospital with a broken leg.

The death of Tom Reilly's brother was just the beginning of a childhood scarred by grief. In the spring of 1956, history repeated itself with chilling familiarity when another brother, James, was hit by a dump truck on the Air Force base in Chicopee where he worked as a surveyor. He, too, was killed instantly from the impact, the victim of a broken neck. Two years later, when he was 16, Tom suffered a third tragedy when his father, Mortimer “Marty” Reilly, was found dead at home from a heart attack.

Tom Reilly doesn't talk easily about his father or the brothers he's lost. Sitting at a conference table in his well-appointed office on Beacon Hill, wearing a dark suit with a rust-and-navy checkered tie, Reilly struggles to find words to express the effect those early tragedies have had on his life. “My outlook on life, from a very early age, has been to appreciate what you have,” he says, the corners of his pale blue eyes reddening. He squints them closed and turns his head as tears begin to spill. “Life is not fair,” he says, before breaking off. “I've been given opportunities that my brothers haven't had.”

Contrasted with Reilly's stern public image, the show of emotion is a shock. But it doesn't surprise those who know Reilly best. “He's experienced real grief and doesn't find it hard to empathize,” says Ralph Martin, former Suffolk County district attorney, whose own mother was murdered when he was a child. “Neither of us are the type to talk about it, but when you see him moved in certain situations, you know it's genuine.” Former aide Jill Reilly (no relation) says his identification with those who are suffering made him an advocate for victims' rights before the term even existed. “I think what's always driven him is victims, particularly the kids,” she says. “He always said, 'Someone has to speak for these people. Their families are distraught and broken apart. Who's going to speak for them?'”

When Reilly was elected attorney general in 1998, many doubted whether he could apply his experience prosecuting murders to the more consumer-oriented arena of attorney general. His drive to protect and defend victims — children, the elderly, and otherwise helpless citizens — is the key that connects them. “What happens here affects people's lives,” Reilly says. “This is not an academic exercise. People are depending on us.”

Mixed in with the family photos in his office are snapshots of some of the people he's spoken for. People like Matthew Eappen, the child shaken to death by British au pair Louise Woodward; and Sarah Pryor, a fourth-grader abducted in Wayland in 1985, whose killer has never been found. But in Reilly's mind, the definition of victim stretches beyond murder cases. When the state's largest HMO, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, posted $300 million in debt two years ago, patients feared losing their benefits. Reilly took the politically risky move of putting the company into receivership, demanding a reorganization plan and working hard to help devise it. What stuck out most from those negotiations, he recalls, was a chance meeting with a woman on a hotel escalator. “Thank you for what you are doing,” the woman said, turning around to face him. “I've got to keep my insurance.” Reilly says she then showed him her distended stomach, saying, “I plan on having my baby.” That was all the justification he needed. “I don't know of one instance of anyone who was denied care,” he says of the HMO restructuring. “Is it a homicide? No. Is it important? Yes.”

Sometimes it is a homicide. In the summer of 1995, Janet Downing was found lying in a pool of blood in her dining room in Somerville, stabbed 97 times, once hard enough to break a rib. Her chest was defaced with semicircular cuts, and her throat was sliced in horizontal gashes. “I've seen all levels of violence, and this was off the charts,” says Reilly, who was then Middlesex County district attorney.

Bloody fingerprints and DNA samples at the scene belonged to her son's best friend, 15-year-old Eddie O'Brien, a former altar boy with no criminal record. But the brutality of the crime convinced Reilly that the boy was unnaturally violent and would kill again if he went through the juvenile system only to be released a few years later. He took the unprecedented step of trying the case himself, leading angry residents to accuse him of using the boy's trial for his own political ends.

When the court turned down his request to try O'Brien as an adult, Reilly appealed the decision all the way to the state Supreme Judicial Court. Then, in hour upon hour of televised testimony, Reilly laid out his case until a jury — and a shocked public — gradually conceded that the teenager was guilty of first-degree murder. That determination is typical, says Marty Murphy, his former first assistant district attorney. “You're going to have to go a long way,” he says “before you find a case where he backed down.”

When O'Brien was sentenced to life, the case became a landmark in juvenile crime, inspiring legislation that required juveniles 14 and older charged with murder in Massachusetts to be tried as adults. It also made Reilly's career. Detractors accused him of grandstanding before the TV cameras and turning the case into a political issue he could ride into higher office. The most vocal was O'Brien's father, who lunged at Reilly in the courtroom when the verdict was read, then raked him over the coals afterwards, saying: “His political career was on the line, and that's all he cares about. I don't know how he sleeps at night.”

Reilly says his motivation was nothing more than a personal promise. “We owed it to the family to finish the job,” he says. But the label of overzealous prosecutor stuck, cemented in the case of au pair Louise Woodward, who was convicted of second-degree murder less than a month after the O'Brien verdict. When the judge in the case took the step of reducing the charge to manslaughter, Reilly's office was accused of overreaching.

The charge has followed him up to the present day: The Red Sox claimed Reilly's authority over charities stops short of allowing him to block their sale. The team's lawyers won't talk on the record, however. Neither will others who have squared off against the state's top prosecutor in the courtroom or on the political battlefield — well aware, perhaps, of the power of his office.

His colleagues won't dispute that he's tough on crime but reject the notion that he's a grandstander. “His sense of justice can be questioned, and suspected, and criticized,” says George Bachrach, “but that shouldn't be confused with his sense of politics. He has seen some ghastly things, and real hardships faced by families and children, and to some degree that has convinced him that there are bad people in the world who need to be punished.”

In other words, Reilly may be overzealous, but it's not political. It's personal. “Sometimes the public sees it later on, when everything's cleaned up, then there's a spin they try to put on it,” says Reilly. “I saw it when it was real. I saw the pain it caused. . . . I always try to treat people like they're my own brother, or sister, or mother or father.”

Mortimer and Bridie Reilly were from the “other side,” and their tiny house in the Pine Point neighborhood of Springfield was a testament to Irish pride, accented with green counters, green trim, and layer after layer of patterned green wallpaper. Marty, as everyone in town called the elder Reilly, was the foreman for the department of public works, and Tom remembers accompanying him to jobs including laying the sidewalks that still serve the downtown business district.

After his brother James died, Tom felt obliged to follow in his footsteps at Cathedral High School. But where his brother had been a popular student, Tom was rudderless. “He was in a rebellious mode,” says Reilly's childhood friend Wayne Budd, who notes that Reilly frequently tested the patience of the nuns with harmless pranks and abysmal grades. “If anyone had told me then that he would become attorney general,” Budd says now, “I would have had them committed.”

Budd, who is now executive vice president at John Hancock Financial Services, calls Reilly his best friend. The two grew up in the same neighborhood, and Budd's father, Joe, a Springfield police officer, was a mentor to Reilly after his own father died. He encouraged Reilly to go to college, first Saint Francis Xavier University, a small Catholic school in Nova Scotia; then American International College in Springfield; and, finally, Boston College Law School.

In 1975, Reilly and Budd went into private practice together, sharing an office at 3 Center Plaza. “We took whatever came in the door,” says Budd. “Criminal cases, auto accidents, divorces.” Through the door also came Ralph Martin, then a co-op law student at Northeastern, who shared both their expanding caseload and their devilish sense of humor. Martin remembers that Reilly was fond of calling Martin's secretary on the phone and impersonating VIPs and court officials, once exasperating him so much he threw his folio down the hall. “We would have made a lot more money if we hadn't spent so much time playing jokes on each other,” he says.

The friendships would prove to be a more important reward. It didn't hurt Reilly to have such heavy hitters in his corner when he ran for attorney general in 1998 against state Senator Lois Pines, a noted consumer advocate who terrified the business community. Thanks in part to Budd's business connections, Reilly raised $330,000 — nearly half his total war chest — from businesses regulated by the AG's office. In the bruising race that followed, Pines accused Reilly of being in the pocket of the business establishment, chiding him for refusing to advocate changes in regulations covering everything from healthcare to bank surcharges. “My opponent,” she said, “will apparently be content to sit back and allow consumers to suffer when the law is inadequate to protect them.”

Since taking office, however, Reilly has raised the hackles of some of the same companies that helped him. For example, he has demanded that NSTAR pay consumers back $22.5 million for power outages last summer. Reilly even thwarted his best friend when, as head of Bell Atlantic New England, Budd sought to expand the company into the long-distance market. Shortly after becoming AG, Reilly blocked the move — and both men insist they have never even spoken about the issue. Such “disloyalty” is not surprising to John Airasian, a businessman in Watertown who helped Reilly get elected to his first public office: a seat on that town's licensing board. Two years later, Reilly turned down Airasian's application for a liquor license in a restaurant in the Arsenal Mall food court. “And he was right in what he did,” says Airasian. “It's something we laugh about now.”

Despite his toughness, some still fault Reilly for failing to use his office to influence legislation. Evan Slavitt, a Republican lawyer running against Reilly this fall, blasts him for spending too much time on sideshows like the Red Sox and not enough time on the bully pulpit. “I don't think he came into the office with a clear agenda,” says Slavitt, “so he drifts from topic to topic depending on what shows up.” Republican political consultant Rob Gray places Reilly squarely in the middle of ideological battles. “He basically takes a cop's approach to the job,” he says.

All agree that it's a marked departure from the tenure of other attorneys general, including Reilly's predecessor, Democrat Scott Harshbarger, who not only made repeated public tilts against two Republican governors, but also took on sacred cows in his own party. In eight years, Harshbarger indicted 160 officials on corruption charges ranging from bribery and forgery to campaign finance violations and tax fraud, convicting 83 percent of them. But it's the ones who got away that will be remembered. Some party officials will never forgive Harshbarger for what they saw as spurious prosecution of former AG Edward McCormack and former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, which amounted to a dismissal of charges and a small fine, respectively.

By contrast, Reilly has yet to charge anyone in an ongoing investigation into the Big Dig. And though his office led the prosecution of the men accused of stealing $9.4 million from the state Treasury, it stopped short of indicting former Treasurer Joe Malone, saying there was not sufficient evidence. “This is serious business,” he says. “If you charge somebody with a crime, you've tarnished that person, and you've got to go to great pains to prove that you are right. It doesn't count if you indict and don't convict.”

He says his principle has always been to follow the facts where they lead, and no farther. “The most important thing I can do is to make sure we get things done,” he says. “I don't look beyond that for any grand plan.” What critics call a low-key tenure Reilly embraces as a solid record. “Is it low-key? Yes. Is it results-oriented? Yes. Is it effective? Yes.”

That may be an understatement. Since taking office, Reilly's approval ratings have shot from 40 to 63 percent, a figure that's “through the roof,” according to UMass Boston pollster and political analyst Lou DiNatale. “He's emerged as a top-tier Democratic contender for any office,” says DiNatale, despite the fact that Reilly says he's happy with the job he has. The real show of his success may be this: In an election year where no fewer than seven Democrats have thrown their hats in the ring for the governor's office (five remain), not one has challenged the attorney general.

Flanked by district attorneys from five counties, Reilly was sporting the same checkered tie he had worn to an interview two days before. But he betrayed none of the same emotion as he announced the results of a meeting with the Archdiocese of Boston. The church, he said, had agreed not only to turn over the names of all victims of purported sexual abuse by priests but also to release those victims from confidentiality agreements that prohibited them from telling their stories.

“To move on this quickly is in the best interests of the victims,” said Reilly, accenting points with downward thrusts of his hand, “and certainly the best interests of ordinary people caught up in this.”

The next day, Reilly was hailed as a hero for challenging the authority of Cardinal Bernard Law, something few other politicians have done. He had already compelled the church to turn over the names of about 90 priests to district attorneys to prosecute. But those names were worthless without the names of the victims, and when the church stalled on providing them, the DAs appealed to Reilly, who called everyone into a room to hammer out a solution. In an hour and a half, he had one.

Such quiet maneuvering is what Reilly has always done best. Despite the publicity Reilly received for murder cases in Middlesex County, one of the most important went almost unnoticed. Only two months after Reilly became DA, a Cambodian student named To Ky was shot dead by rival gang members in a parking lot in Lowell. Within days of the shooting, Reilly called a meeting in Lowell and laid down the foundation of what he would later call his “community-based justice” program.

The mayor, school officials, cops, probation officers, and neighborhood leaders pooled their information, and the results were astounding. Together, they identified, in a city of 100,000, the 100 or so kids who were causing the problem, and worked to clamp down on them. The program quickly spread to other gang-plagued school districts. Throughout the 1990s, Reilly attended meetings in Cambridge on Mondays, Malden on Wednesdays, and Somerville on Thursdays. Within a few years, the ripples spread to Boston, where Ralph Martin was DA. “It was not an original idea by us,” says Martin. “We adapted the Middlesex model, without a doubt.”

As murder rates in Boston plummeted more than 70 percent, the so-called “Boston Miracle” drew the attention of other cities, starting with New York. By the late 1990s, community policing had been widely adopted throughout the country.

It would not be the only time Reilly worked behind the scenes to encourage cooperation. When the federal government announced a proposed settlement with Microsoft in its ongoing antitrust case, Reilly was the first state AG to oppose it. Over a series of conference calls, he convinced nine other attorneys general to join him. Closer to home, Reilly was instrumental in arranging a task force to deal with a rash of thefts of the pharmaceutical drug Oxycontin in the fall, bringing his investigators together with Boston police detectives. After September 11, he organized a working group to deal with the rash of assaults on Muslims and Arabs, bringing together district attorneys, police chiefs, and Islamic leaders to strategize on hate-crime enforcement.

“He was one of the few people around that could pull that off,” says Boston Police Commissioner Evans. “You can't question his motives. When Tom Reilly calls people together, it's not because there are 10 cameras there. His ability to sit down and listen to a table full of people is a unique skill.”

As the attorney general arrives at the Paul R. McLaughlin Youth Center for a photo shoot, he doesn't forget the letter of the law; he makes sure to sign the visitor's book before heading upstairs. The act is entirely unnecessary, since he's known here already. For the past two years, he and members of his office have been coming here to tutor teens and teach classes on everything from law to modern dance. The Dorchester youth center holds a special importance for Reilly, since it's named after a friend, an assistant attorney general who was slain in a parking lot by a gang member he was prosecuting. Identical paintings of McLaughlin hang in the lobby of the youth center and in the room in Reilly's office where he holds news conferences.

Sitting surrounded by children, Reilly talks schoolwork with the cute-as-a-button Vietnamese girl beside him. Afterward, he plays a game of pool with three teenagers, his antsy staff waiting to whisk him to a fundraiser. “Microsoft isn't important,” he says during a pause, watching the teens set up shots on the pool table. “This is important.” He corrects himself. “Of course Microsoft is important, but this is what's really important. Any one of these kids could have been me at this age.” He sounds like he means it.

This is more than a photo op for Reilly; it seems to get to the core of his work. While the public sees him in high-profile skirmishes like the one with the Red Sox, it's the smaller battles that seem most to engage him. When his thoughts do turn to the Red Sox deal, his eyes flash with anger. “You see all the good that can be done,” he says, waving his hand over the room. “The charities were getting shortchanged, and it was wrong. I was hoping they wouldn't pull this, but they did. I don't know what they were thinking. I couldn't sit back and do nothing.”