The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Nepotism, or What Makes Massachusetts, Massachusetts

The citizen’s job is to be rude–to pierce the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of doubt.
            —John Ralston Saul, The Doubter’s Companion

Curiously, nobody in Massachusetts has been willing to publish this essay, let alone manifest a minimum of outrage or interest in the subject matter, not the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Ethics Today, Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, Libertarian Association, State Ethics Commission Bulletin, Agni (B.U.), Boston Phoenix, Worcester Review, Boston Magazine (MIT), Boston, Long Term View, or Commonwealth. In fact, the editor of the latter wrote in a rejection letter: “I have read your article on nepotism, etc. and can’t see anyway to make it into a Commonwealth piece. There’s just so much personal animus throughout that the reader has no reason to believe the ideas are being fairly considered. Not the kind of writing we use. Sorry, I can’t offer any encouragement.”
Well, let the reader decide just how fairly the ideas are presented and perhaps even why the editor of a review requesting essays on “issues affecting Massachusetts citizens,” displayed absolutely no interest, let alone indignation, in the legality of nepotism in the public sector, fairly presented or not.
As a newly hired professor at Fitchburg State College, I was surprised to discover here and there, then seemingly everywhere, family members employed at the college. In the Humanities Department alone, four out of thirteen professors, including the chairperson, had either a wife or son employed there (Semerjian, Dinda, Lorenzen, and Errishi). When I eventually grew out of favor with my chairperson, DeCesare, and college administrators in general, and was issued a terminal contract at the end of my fourth year based on highly corrupt faculty evaluations and procedures, I decided to fight back. One of the things I did was look into the matter of nepotism, thinking that it would be the easiest type of corruption to prove.
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines the term as “patronage bestowed or favoritism shown based on family relationship, as in business and politics.” Certainly, one could also add ‘as in academe,’ because it can be argued that today the Academy has been reduced to nothing but “politics.” In any case, when nepotism exists, it tends to be quite visible for evident reasons. Patronage or favoritism relative to family members must be considered a form of corruption when it exists in the public domain, for special treatment of any kind ineluctably results in inequality of treatment. Peter Blau notes, in The Organization of Academic Work, that inbreeding “has adverse effects on faculty quality in all academic settings.”
My attempts to bring the issue into a forum of debate began after reading the “Fact Sheet” disseminated by the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission to all public employees, including professors employed at the state’s public colleges and universities. I filed a formal complaint by mail with the Commission against my chairperson Harry Semerjian, now professor emeritus, who had been teaching courses with his wife, Helena Semerjian. The Commission’s Enforcement Division Chief, Steven Fauteux, eventually sent a response, acknowledging receipt of my complaint and expressing appreciation for my having brought the matter to his attention.
Two years later, I sent another letter to the Enforcement Chief, asking questions about the realities expressed in the “Fact Sheet” and filed another complaint, this time against Fitchburg State’s dean of Graduate & Continuing Education, Michele Zide (alumnus of FSC), whose husband, Judge Elliot Zide, had been teaching courses in that division. The letter the Enforcement Chief sent a month later was surprising because it was an exact duplicate of the first one he’d sent two years before. The Enforcement Chief did not answer any of my questions, a privilege apparently accorded to public servants in the state.
Just the same, I wanted answers, so drove an hour to Boston, walked into the heavily guarded McCormack State Office Building, was searched by the police with electronic devices, then was permitted to ascend to the sixth floor to try to obtain answers. After hanging around for a while, waiting for the receptionist to find somebody to deal with me (everyone was out on business), the Enforcement Chief Steven Fauteux finally came out and agreed to talk. I told him I simply wanted to confirm my conclusions that it appeared that nepotism was essentially legal in the state of Massachusetts. His response after fumbling through several documents, then pointing out certain passages in “Summary of Commission Advisory No. 11–Nepotism” was “yes, there can be.”  I thanked him and left, a bit flabbergasted by his apparent acceptance of legal nepotism and lack of outrage relative to it.
Interestingly, the State Ethics Commission avoids the dictionary definition of nepotism. Instead, it states in its advisory document No. 11 (see “the term ‘nepotism’ originates from the Latin word for nephew. It originally referred to favoritism to a nephew in granting official positions. Nepotism is now commonly understood to include favoritism of any sort afforded any relative.” Perhaps the term “patronage” is omitted in the Commission’s definition because it clearly evokes political corruption and perhaps the very modus operandi of many of the state’s politicians.
In any event, advisory document No. 11 mentions that the Special Commission that wrote the draft for the conflict of interest law in 1962 surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) “indicated that hiring a family member should not be considered a violation of the law.” However, a 1983 Supreme Judicial Court decision determined the contrary; that is, that public employees were “prohibited from acting on matters (i.e., hiring, salary reviews, promotions, etc.) that affect an immediate family member’s financial interest.”
Nevertheless, it is not difficult to envision how a public employee (e.g., a state-college administrator, chairperson or whatever) can easily get around that decision by simply having a good ‘friend’ act on pertinent matters involving any family members employed by the same institution, and thus render the decision wholly superficial. Indeed, only the stupidly corrupt (not the wily corrupt), as indicated by the examples cited below, ever find themselves before the State Ethics Commission. Besides, why should a corrupt public official even care about getting caught when the fines are so very paltry? The “Fact Sheet” thus mentions that the Commission’s essential mandate is to enforce the state’s conflict of interest law, which stipulates that
The appearance of a conflict of interest will often be created when a public employee’s personal interests or relationships overlap with his or her public obligations. The Standards of Conduct (§23 of the conflict law) provides a general code of ethics for all public employees and officials when faced with this overlap of private interests and official responsibilities... Public officials and employees must avoid conduct that creates a reasonable impression that any person can improperly influence or unduly enjoy their official favor, or that they are likely to act or fail to act because of kinship, rank, position or undue influence of any party or person. A reasonable impression of favoritism or bias may arise when a public official acts on matters affecting a friend’s, a business associate’s or a relative’s financial interest.
That stipulation would have hopefully kept nepotism at bay in Massachusetts. Indeed, it would be difficult to argue that my “impression” was not “reasonable” that the chairperson’s wife, Helena Semerjian, and the dean’s husband, Judge Elliot Zide, probably “unduly enjoy” the “official favor of” their respective spouses. Unfortunately, the “Fact Sheet” also stipulates that “current state law allows public officials to act on matters, even if it creates appearance of conflict, if they openly admit all the facts surrounding the appearance of bias prior to any official action.”
This incredibly grotesque provision is part of an amendment to the conflict of interest law passed in April 1986. Why that amendment was adopted is anyone’s guess. But the only reason I can come up with is that there must have been too many family members of the legislators, who backed the amendment, employed in the state’s various institutions. Indeed, why shouldn’t legislators pass legislation that would legalize their very modus operandi? Cronyism, after all, has enjoyed a long and continuous history in the state. Clearly, the 1986 amendment, coupled with the ease of delegating personnel actions to ‘friends’ of family members, permits widespread nepotism or, at best, grotesque favoritism. Clearly, nepotism has been promoted to a form of legal corruption in Massachusetts.
With an evident number of ‘legal’ cases of nepotism, Fitchburg State College serves as a good example of what equality of treatment does not constitute in a public institution. In the Humanities Department alone, as mentioned, four out of thirteen professors had family members working there. Perhaps that ratio is even higher today. Even more egregious is the fact that the wives of two of the college’s vice presidents, Michael Rivards and Dan Flynn, work at the college. It would be very difficult to conceive that neither VP exerted influence over the evaluation of their respective spouse’s job performance.
Relative to Judge Zide, husband of the dean of Graduate and Continuing Education, it will be interesting to discover whether or not he gets in on the cake, that is on the easy money, vis-à-vis the college’s new Criminal Justice program. Indeed, if he does, it would also be interesting to note what the qualifications of the other candidates were and how many of the latter wasted their time interviewing at the college. However, in Massachusetts, all such personnel matters are conveniently (legally!) concealed from the public eye. We shall never know.
In fact, the Enforcement Chief’s form letter underscores that all complaints lodged with the State Ethics Commission are also conveniently concealed, despite the fact they inevitably deal with the public sector. Indeed, the state protects ‘its own’ with legislation such as the conflict of interest law. It also protects ‘its own’ with the convenient absence of legislation. Why, for example, does Massachusetts continually refuse to enact state versions of the federal Freedom of Information and False Claims acts? Other states such as California, Texas, Illinois and Florida have done so. A False Claims Act would have probably permitted me, a common citizen of the state, to sue the state on behalf of the state for the fraud propagated by Fitchburg State College and even by that propagated by the conflict of interest law itself. The Enforcement Chief’s form letter states:
Unless the matter is resolved publicly, you should be aware that we will not be able to inform you of what action we take regarding your complaint. This is because our enacting statute, G.L.c. 268B, and our procedures impose strict confidentiality requirements on all aspects of our review of complaints. We trust you can understand that protecting the confidentiality of our investigations and our sources is essential to our effectiveness, and to complainants’ and subjects’ legitimate privacy concerns.
Needless to say, I took offense that the Enforcement Chief thought I should “understand” confidentiality was such a good thing. I had no problem with it in the private sector, but in the public sector, confidentiality only seems to protect corrupt functionaries, academic or other. Clearly, it constitutes one of the very root causes of corruption in the public sector. We, the public, don’t know what the hell is going on because of it. The Enforcement Chief’s letter further states:
You will receive a letter from us when we have completed reviewing this matter. If the matter is closed without an investigation or with a confidential letter to the subject, your letter will simply state that the staff has concluded that there was no violation or that this matter does not warrant further action by the Commission at this time. The letter will not inform you of the details of our review or of the particulars of the confidential resolution. If the matter is resolved publicly, we will send you a copy of the public resolution.
Indeed, I eventually received responses relative to the outcome of the two complaints I’d lodged. The most recent one, regarding my complaint against the judge and husband of the dean of Graduate & Continuing Education, states:
We have conducted a careful review of the allegations you made to this Commission in your September 10, 1997 letter. At this time, we have determined that the matter does not require presentation to the Commission for official action... you have not provided us with any details to establish a violation of the conflict of interest law...
The response left me angry, for I’d clearly asked in my complaint letter what precise information and/or documentation the Commission would require to proceed with an investigation. The Commission had not and, to this day, has not answered that question, nor has it responded to this essay, which I sent as a submission to its State Ethics Commission Bulletin, whose existence I discovered during my visit to the McCormack Building. Unfortunately, the Bulletin is not widely distributed, if at all, because it is probably the only place where violations of the conflict of interest law are ever reported. Today, nonetheless, such information is available on the Commission’s web site ( under the rubrics “Summaries of Conflict of Interest Advisory Opinions from 1979 to 1998,” “Summaries of Enforcement Actions from 1979 to 1998” and “Hearing Notices.”
For evident reasons, the public needs to be informed about its corrupt public servants, including its morally and intellectually corrupt public college professors and administrators. The Bulletin I’d read (April 1997) included short reports on various violators, including Representative Angelo Scaccia, fined $3,000 for violating the law on five different occasions by “accepting illegal gratuities from lobbyists and others with interest in legislative business;” Scituate Planning Board Member Herbert Kuendig, fined $1,000 for representing a private client before the Planning Board; former Chairperson of the Selectman Committee Armand Gagné, fined $5,000 for acting to have the town pay for his Suffolk University tuition; and former Somerville School Committee member Julie DiPasquale, not fined for her participation in matters in which her sister and daughter had financial interests.
As for the latter, only a Public Enforcement letter was issued because the Commission had decided that DiPasquale “believed in good faith that she could participate... in revising the policy for calculating scores on the Teacher Eligibility List, which determines the ranking of applicants for teaching positions,” despite the fact that after the revision, her daughter’s rank on two lists rose from seventh to fifth, which resulted in a recommendation for a position. Remember the statement made regarding this essay by the editor of Commonwealth: “just so much personal animus throughout.”
These brief accounts, as well as others, clearly reveal the kind of sleazy wheeling and dealing that can and does take place in the public sector behind the scenes. Nevertheless, in the convenient absence of state Freedom of Information legislation, some corruption, if not most corruption, will undoubtedly remain undisclosed to the public, including just how many violations of the conflict of interest law go unreported, how many cases backed by slick lawyers (e.g., Fitchburg State’s Harvard lawyer, Mark Peters, is a tough nut to crack) go unpunished, how independent and rigorous the members of the State Ethics Commission are and how many of the latter might themselves have benefited from ‘legal’ nepotism. Just the same, the cases mentioned in the Bulletin and on the web site seem to indicate the Commission does actually serve a purpose. However, because of the de facto legality of most nepotism in the state that purpose is probably restricted for the most part to providing an arena for political foes of the state’s oligarchy. In conclusion, whether legal or not, nepotism creates an unhealthy atmosphere of favoritism.
Unconnected employees inevitably feel that merit has nothing to do with their jobs. That was how I ended up feeling at Fitchburg State College, though it was not only a feeling for it became evident fact, especially during the arbitration hearings, where I was eventually offered a monetary settlement paid for by taxpayers and mandated by the teachers union to remain confidential information.
Moreover, if the state really wants to present itself as a democratic and egalitarian entity known as the ‘Commonwealth,’ it needs to change the reality of ‘legal nepotism,’ not foster it as it did in 1986. If it does not want to change the status quo, as is more than apparent in the recently proposed superficial amendments to the conflict of interest law, perhaps it should be calling itself the ‘Connectedwealth’ of Massachusetts to end once and for all the grotesque hypocrisy it seems content perpetrating.
When favoritism becomes a modus operandi at the expense of merit, the common, unconnected citizen must pay higher and higher taxes to clean up the resulting ineluctable inefficiency. No doubt nepotism and generalized cronyism have played a considerable role in the gross mismanagement involved in the state’s infamous Big Dig, which was, strangely enough, not even an issue during the past gubernatorial election. No doubt nepotism and generalized cronyism have given rise to the state’s latest scandal in the Treasury. No doubt nepotism and generalized cronyism will prevent the state from ever being able to make a statement like Georgia does at the end of all its public job announcements. “Georgia is an Open Records Law State.” Indeed, it is, and, indeed Massachusetts is not.