MICHAEL BLATUS Sr. was the guest of honor at a recent event recognizing his public service, but the name of another longtime Dracut pol was on many lips: Michael McLaughlin’s release from federal prison is around the corner.
McLaughlin pleaded guilty more than three years ago to four counts of falsifying documents to hide his salary when he was the Chelsea Housing Authority executive director, which in 2011 totaled more than $324,000.
McLaughlin led the Lowell Housing Authority in the 1980s and was an assistant superintendent in the Dracut School Department. He was found to have overpaid himself by about $548,0000 from 2008 to 2011, and then falsified documents to cover himself. McLaughlin also had a former Chelsea Housing Authority accountant shred years’ worth of the executive director’s pay slips.
He was sentenced on July 17, 2013, to 36 months in federal prison. He began his federal prison sentence on Sept. 13, 2013.
About a year later, while in prison, McLaughlin pleaded guilty to state charges that he illegally solicited campaign donations on behalf of then-Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and Israel Reyes, a candidate for Lawrence mayor in 2009. McLaughlin was found to have solicited Chelsea Housing Authority employees to attend Murray fundraisers and contribute donations, actions which are against state law. McLaughlin was sentenced to six months in jail, concurrent to the time he was already serving.
The Column learned McLaughlin is an inmate at the Federal Corrections Institution in Berlin, N.H. Speculation at the Dracut party was that McLaughlin might be released as early as Wednesday, Nov. 9. Prison Public Information Officer Michael Lejeune said McLaughlin is scheduled for release March 7, and no earlier.
Among the pols paying homage to Blatus, a former selectman, were U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, state Rep. Colleen Garry of Dracut, state Sen. Barbara L’Italien and Murray.
THE SHARP elbows came out at The Sun’s 14th Middlesex District state representative debate Thursday held at the Chelmsford Center for the Arts.
Democrat incumbent Cory Atkins and Republican challenger Helen Brady repeatedly sniped at one another. Green-Rainbow Party candidate Danny Factor, sitting in the middle, was a beacon of civility and stayed focused on policy.
During a discussion about Chelmsford being split into four districts, Brady said Atkins didn’t do enough to help the town during the redistricting about five years ago. Brady hearkened back to the original “gerrymandering” that landed then-House Speaker Thomas Finneran in jail.
“To have 10 years go by and nothing — to me it just shows the culture of corruption out there and this is the way it goes, business as usual, status quo, ‘too bad for you Chelmsford, but we’re just going to have to make you wait another 10 years,'” Brady said. “I don’t accept that.”
Atkins said she’d never heard from Brady about the issue.
Brady often cries corruption with no proof, Atkins said. “You show me corruption, I’ll get something done,” Atkins said.
During the discussion about the proposed 4 percent millionaire’s tax — Atkins supports, Brady opposes — Atkins swung.
“I’m really surprised at my opponent, who has enjoyed an enormous amount of generosity, that she doesn’t want to share that with other people in the Commonwealth,” Atkins said.
Brady asked for clarification; Atkins said she meant Brady’s family’s generosity.
Brady said she and her family are generous in donating to charity and volunteering in the community. She called Atkins’ comments “rude” and “disparaging” and said she resents Atkins’ “class warfare.”
“Huh … class warfare between two women who live on Monument Street is a bit funny,” Atkins scoffed, referring to the Concord street lined with $1 million-plus homes. (Brady and Atkins lived two-tenths of a mile apart until Atkins sold her home a few years ago.)
“I didn’t come from Monument Street, nor did I marry to Monument Street, but thank you,” Brady shot back.
CAMBODIAN POLITICS has always played a background role in the 18th Middlesex District race between two Cambodian-Americans, Rep. Rady Mom and challenger Kamara Kay.
That came to the forefront when a mailer went out showing Mom in photos with Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen and two of his sons, Hun Manet and Hun Many. Whoever created the mailer wanted to connect Mom to a family associated with human-rights violations.
“Cambodians in Lowell, MA do not support Rady Mom and Cambodia’s corrupt regime!” the mailer says in capital letters.
Kay denied he or his campaign had anything to do with it.
“No one seems to know about it. I don’t know about it,” he said Friday. But he said he wouldn’t disavow the mailer because he considered it freedom of speech. He said he didn’t know whether it would hurt or help his campaign.
Mom didn’t buy Kay’s explanation.
“I don’t think so,” he said, adding: “I couldn’t care less about the politicians in Cambodia.”
KAY, A Republican, won an endorsement from the state’s top Republican, Gov. Charlie Baker. Kay may need all the help he can get running in the heavily Democratic Acre and Highlands neighborhoods.
LOWELL SCHOOL administration whiffed on its presentation last week on how to make room for a rising number of students entering middle schools.
Gary Frisch, the schools’ assistant superintendent for finance, presented the district’s plan to add classrooms at the STEM Academy at the Rogers School. But School Committee facilities subcommittee members were upset at having few details, and that Khelfaoui was at a conference on Cape Cod.
“I expected to have a written report,” School Committee member Steve Gendron said, adding that he was “disappointed” that the presentation didn’t have more substance.
“I can’t even call it a plan because we don’t have it in front of us,” member Robert Gignac said.
Robert Hoey gave a glass-half-full view, saying Khelfaoui would be available when the next plan is presented.
“I’m happy the mistakes were made, because I don’t want to be here without my superintendent here,” he said. “I think he would have presented something a little different.”
BILLERICA Democratic Town Committee member John Kleschinsky has quit the group — and its chairman won’t accept the resignation.
Kleschinsky has been a vocal critic of Democratic state rep candidate George Simolaris, tweeting out his displeasure under the hashtag #NeverSimolaris, a spin-off on the popular #NeverTrump.
Chairman Dean Santoro wants Kleschinsky to quit in person.
“A lot of the members feel like it’s a cop out to not go in front of them,” Santoro said. “He should stand and state his position in front of the membership, and let the members decide.”
Santoro doesn’t expect Kleschinsky to show up to the Nov. 15 meeting.
“He won’t stand up in front of the people,” Santoro said. “I don’t think he has the guts to do it. He just sits behind a keyboard.”
Kleschinsky said he will be voting blank in the race between Simolaris and Republican Rep. Marc Lombardo; it’s the first time he will ever vote blank, he said.
Simolaris was registered as unenrolled earlier this year before changing to Democrat.
AFTER A ROUGH month, the Wilmington School Committee officially welcomed back Joanne Benton, this time as the district’s interim superintendent.
Previous superintendent Mary DeLai resigned Oct. 3 after her August DWI arrest went public. The School Committee worked quickly to find a replacement with budget season approaching. Ultimately, they chose the candidate they know best.
“I was honored and humbled by their interest in having me return,” Benton said in an email. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I think I would be returning to Wilmington.”
Benton said she is looking forward to returning and is hopeful she can make a difference. She has worked parttime to mentor principals in the Melrose and Burlington school districts since her “retirement.”
Benton served as superintendent from 2007 to 2014, and before that was assistant superintendent.
She said her priorities this time around are to reconnect with the staff and parents in town. Benton added that a preliminary budget also needs to be presented to the School Committee on Dec. 14.
The relationship between the town and the school department was also something Benton said she was impressed by and ready to re-establish.
Benton took to Twitter to express her excitement on her first day back.
“It is great to be back in Wilmington! Amazing staff and students. Go Wildcats!” she tweeted Thursday.
DRACUT’S BOARD of Selectmen has some snazzy new toys.
Selectmen began using Microsoft tablets in an effort to replace the hundred-page packets of paperwork they’d previously have to carry around. It’s part of an effort to cut waste, chairwoman Alison Hughes said.
But the transition hasn’t been entirely smooth. At the last meeting, selectmen were temporarily unable to access the internet, and therefore their important documents.
The issue was resolved. But Joseph DiRocco Jr., the longest-serving selectman, has declined to put his tablet to use at the meetings.
He suggested that his colleagues solve their technical problems the same way Bill Belichik did. During a game against the Buffalo Bills last month, the Patriots coach was caught on camera smashing his own Microsoft tablet.
THE GREATER Lowell Chamber of Commerce has renamed its annual community champion award to honor the late Stephen Jones. Jones, 67, died at an event held at UTEC in September. He was the vice president of community development at Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union.
The Chelmsford resident was heavily involved with the chamber for more than a decade, and served on the board of directors for eight years.
“Renaming our Community Champion award to honor Steve Jones is such a wonderful way to honor a true community champion,” said Pamela Huntley, board of directors chairwoman.
Six area residents will be honored as community champion awards on Nov. 16 at Lenzi’s in Dracut: Chaz Doughty of Tyngsboro, John Harrington of Chelmsford, Jim Lichoulas of Lowell, Jim Marshall of Billerica, David Paquin of Dracut and Tewkbury Police Chief Timothy Sheehan. Logan Data, a consulting services company in Westford, will be honored in the business category.
IT DIDN’T take long for former WCAP radio show host John MacDonald to get a chance at a new gig. One week after resigning from WCAP over a flap with station owner Sam Poulten, MacDonald was called to co-host the Wednesday morning Boston Herald Radio show with John Sapochetti.
MacDonald led the listening audience to pipe up about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail mess — the same conversation he was holding at WCAP when Poulten, a big Democrat Party supporter, walked in on the show and put a stop to it.
MacDonald, looking at ‘CAP in the rearview mirror, MacDonald has accepted a new position as business development manager with Wisconsin-based Credit Union National Association. He’s the company’s first Massachusetts employee and will be based in Lowell.
THE SUN’S editorials supporting the statewide initiative to expand charter schools have appeared prominently in “Yes on 2” television ads. In the group’s most recent ad, editorials from the conservative-leaning Sun and the liberal Boston Globe are each mentioned twice.
The Sun’s words — “It’s a kid’s civil right” — are flashed in the ad’s closing scene featuring Baker huddled with a young minority student.
Whether the newspaper endorsements hold sway over the voting public will soon be known. Other newspapers backing Yes on 2 include the Boston Herald, The Republican of Springfield, MetroWest Daily News, Bay State Banner, Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, Milford Daily News, Salem News, Newburyport Daily News, Gloucester Times and Boston Business Journal.
Contributing to The Column this week: Grant Welker in Lowell, Rick Sobey in Billerica, Kori Tuitt in Wilmington, Alana Melanson in Chelmsford and Todd Feathers in Dracut.