AG Healey should form independent commission to investigate the failed agreement
Last week in the first installment of this two-part column, I ran through the many problems with the January 2016 deal between General Electric, the city of Boston, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that has now collapsed for all intents and purposes. At one point the city and state were ready to give over $270 million in public funds to a company with a terrible track record in the Bay State and beyond. But the multinational’s bad business fortunes led to the originally secret agreement’s termination a mere three years after it was signed. And only dumb luck has saved the city and state from handing most of the promised lucre to a thoroughly undeserving corporate scofflaw like GE. Which doesn’t make the failed deal any better or less worthy of public scrutiny.
So this time out, I’d like to propose some ideas aimed at making sure that such a deal can never happen again.
1) Form an independent commission to investigate the GE Boston deal
It’s patently obvious that the state legislature, and most especially the offices of Gov. Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh, are incapable of investigating a bad scheme that they all helped ram through with no public oversight. And the kleptocratic federal government is not currently a place to turn for assistance either.
So I think it would be worth the effort for grassroots activists to call for Attorney General Maura Healey—a state official who does seem to keep the public good in mind much of the time—to form an independent commission reporting directly to her office to investigate the parties to the GE Boston deal for evidence of civil and criminal malfeasance. Which, if found, could then be prosecuted by the AG in the appropriate courts of law.
After writing the equivalent of a short book on the deal, I don’t have any smoking guns about it in my possession yet. But I feel like the character “Popeye” Doyle in the film The French Connection when he’s ripping apart a car he’s convinced is filled with heroin. And says “That car is dirty!” Then finds the drugs.
A commission of the type I describe would have the power to examine the GE Boston deal in ways that journalists like me cannot. And I am sure that if commissioners fully independent of all parties to that deal start looking at it closely with the AG behind them, they will find that it was indeed “dirty.” Once civil and criminal prosecutions begin, the people of Massachusetts may see how they’ve been played for decades and consider supporting politicians and administrators willing to clean house in the legislature, in city government, and in various shadowy quasi-independent agencies like the BPDA and MassDevelopment. Until we get more honest local and state governments that focus on working people’s needs over the needs of the rich and powerful.
2) Ban government giveaways to corporations in Massachusetts
It’s one (extremely flawed and often unnecessary) thing for governments to pay companies for goods and services. But it’s entirely another to shovel public funds at major companies like General Electric merely because they convinced local, state, and national politicians to compete with each other for the “prize” of some major facility on their turf. Especially because corporations claim to be “private” enterprises run by capitalists, but spend much of their time trying to grab money from government at all levels. All while lobbying to remain largely free from taxation.
As such, legislators in a growing number of states are drafting legislation to ban the practice outright. Notably, New York State Sen. Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Ron Kim have filed NY Bill A05249/S03061, the End Corporate Welfare Act. Which, according to the bill’s web page, “[p]rovides that no compacting state shall permit company-specific subsidies and shall not provide any company-specific subsidy to any company whose headquarters, manufacturing facilities, office space or other real estate developments are located in their state or to incentivize any company to locate their headquarters, manufacturing facilities, office space or other real estate developments in their state.”
As Salazar and Seattle-based union organizer Shaun Scott—both members of Democratic Socialists of America—put it in a recent Guardian op-ed: “State legislatures across the country should come together to ban taxpayer funded giveaways to corporations. … If we stand firm, major corporations will have to change how they do business. They might have to discontinue the kind of union-busting activity that Amazon has been known for. Like Microsoft, they might increase the philanthropic contributions they make towards local housing solutions. Or maybe they’ll finally pay their fair share of taxes. As any labor organizer will tell you, direct action gets the goods.”
If enacted, the Mass legislature could be enjoined to sign onto the compact—working together with New York and other states to stop the “race to the bottom” between such polities caused by huge corporations demanding public tribute. And end special treatment for favored companies that other entities—both for-profit and nonprofit—don’t get. Giveaways that, all told, provide nothing of value to the cities and states megacorps force to fight each other as if they all were gladiators in some giant cage match. But that instead do very real harm to working families in Massachusetts, around the nation, and across the globe.
3) Demand a public apology from the Boston Globe
Stopping future agreements like the GE Boston deal requires that otherwise reputable news organizations stop acting as propaganda mouthpieces for powerful corporations. A practice that has the unfortunate effect of normalizing very abnormal schemes in the public consciousness, and preventing popular outrage from crystalizing into movements for political and economic reform. Of course, remediating damage done starts with an admission of past wrongdoing. Which is why the people of Boston and Massachusetts deserve an apology from area news organizations that dropped all pretense of journalistic responsibility to support the GE Boston deal. And a promise to never do that again.
The worst offender by far was the Boston Globe—which allowed itself to become an extension of the press offices of General Electric, the governor of Massachusetts, and the mayor of Boston. Other news outlets also had their moments of cheap boosterism, and could stand to apologize too. But the Globe’s servile behavior was really beyond the pale of propriety. So its editorial board members should swallow their pride and apologize to the readers they betrayed. If they ever expect their paper to be taken seriously as a journalistic institution again. In an era when its continued existence—billionaire owner or no billionaire owner—is far from certain. And public trust in journalism is at a historic low.
In closing, some tough love for local organizations across the political spectrum that fight against government corruption. You all really dropped the ball with the GE Boston deal. Though a strong and fairly broad grassroots campaign stopped the similarly questionable Boston 2024 Olympics bid from seeing the light of day in 2015, in 2016 those forces stood down and allowed the GE agreement to go through with barely a peep of protest.
Hopefully, “good government” activists can unite at speed to enact reforms like the ones I mention above. Doing so won’t break the corporate stranglehold over local and state government. But it will weaken it, and put conglomerates like GE on notice that the public gravy train of the last century is coming to an end. Creating new political possibilities for working families in Massachusetts.
At a time when we are in dire need of such possibilities.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.