It's not that Boston is any more corrupt than any place else in the country, according to one of Beacon Hill's favorite lines. It's just that the town has had more practice.
Yesterday a new two-year study of construction contracts concluded that "corruption has been a way of life" in Massachusetts. Bribes and political favoritism may have left as many as 76 percent of the public buildings constructed since 1968 with "signficant defects, that is, a structural defect that threatens the safety."
"It was not a matter of a few crooks," said Special Commission on State and County Buildings reported. "The pattern is too broad and pervasive for that easy excuse."
The commission named no names but sources in Boston said more than 100 names were being sent to the commonwealth attorney-general, the Boston U.S. attorney and others for possible criminal action. "For a decade, at least, across Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the way to get architectural contracts was to buy them," the report said.
Others were saying, so what else is new in a town where scandal has become legendary, almost romanticized in fiction with hijinks and heroes?
The legends invariably begin with that old Irish rogue, Mayor James Curley, who started his political life by going to jail in 1903 taking a civil-service exam for a friend. What greater service, he asked upon coming out of the slammer and embarking on his political career, could a fellow perform for a poor friend in need of a job?
Down in the poor Irish wards, the slogan sold and Curley was off on one of America's most colorful political trips -- a 50-year career as congressman, governor and mayor that ended, well, in the slammer, this time for mail fraud. He held on as mayor of Boston during that last jail session, turning his salary over to charity just as he often had crossed the palms of his jobless constituents with fivers when times were rough.
Just where those fivers came from perplexed the Brahmins and delighted the sons and daughters of the old sod, who wept when he went to jail, cheered when he came out. In any case, he set a Boston pattern that spawned great lines like: "No one takes bribes around here -- unless it's in cash."
One of Curley's old cronies, Patrick (Sonny) McDonough, put it this way: "The common gospel around here is that the money comes in round numbers. Trouble is, when a messenger comes with an envelope with $400 in it, you're never sure whether he took $100 for himself or $600."
Yesterday, Massachusetts' latest corruption panel, which issued a 12-volume, 2,500-page report after its two-year study, said life in the blue-blood state has become a little more sophisticated since then -- that the alleged payoffs were disguised as campaign contributions and the quid-proquo was so ingrained that not an incriminating word had to pass between giver and taker.
"Perhaps the most revealing thing in the commission's hearings, private and public, was that witnesses that were involved still could not bring themselves to use the word 'bribe' or 'payoff,'" the commission reported. "Constantly, euphemisms such as 'contribution' or 'one's commitment' to an agreement were the words used. Only when a commissioner would bluntly ask, 'You mean bribe, a payoff, don't you?' would there be a reluctant assent."
"The name of the game is cash," the report said, as if Sonny McDonough has cleaned up his language and written the latest episode. "Bribes were given; extortion was done; the public trust was betrayed. Among those who had the money and the influence to strike the bargain, the state was for sale."
The report said it found "curious lapses and omission in the laws of the commonwealth of Massachusetts" in regard to bribery and extortion. Many of the "nefarious activities" were not specifically prohibited by state law, the commission said, "although all are by federal statute."
The probers concluded that 76 percent of the public buildings they examined had "significant defects," that 72 percent of the buildings authorized by the State Bureau of Building Construction had portions that were completely unsafe because of design flaws and that it might cost $2 billion to repair the deficiencies.
Results of the study "stagger belief," concluded the commission, which included college professors, architects, the state attorney general and lawyers.
The study covered the administrations of three former Massachusetts governors, Republicans John Volpe and Francis W. Sargent and Democrat Endicott Peabody. The commission chairman, former Amherst College president John William Ward, said the panel had "no empirical evidence that corruption is still going on."
Gov. Edward W. King, a Democrat, was vacationing in Florida and had no comment, an aide said.
But former governor Michael J. Dukakis, who was widely reputed to be a "Mr. Clean" who refused to play by the old rules when he came into office in 1975, said the latest scandal was "small potatoes" compared to earlier revelations. He contended the corruption had evolved from straight payoffs to "campaign contributions -- though that's hardly the way to describe the progress."
Dukakis, defeated by King in a Democratic primary two years ago, said Massachusetts is no different from any other Northeastern industrial state, as far as corruption goes. "Corruption is part of the political culture," he said. "Corruption is part of the history of this part of the country."