BOSTON As we learned during the recent trial about the Massachusetts Probation Department’s job-rigging scheme, there’s a difference between patronage and cooking the books. Patronage is legal; cooking the books to foster patronage and political favoritism will land you in prison.
It’s ironic that only five days after former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and others were convicted, Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation to expand the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in a boondoggle designed to feed the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority’s patronage empire and premised on layers of fictional numbers.
On the merits, the $1 billion expansion simply doesn’t make sense. This sums it up: There was a little over 36 million square feet of exhibition space in the United States in 1989. By 2011, that number had nearly doubled to 70.5 million. In the midst of this decades-long convention-space explosion, demand has remained flat at best.
Lest you think that Boston is immune from the trend, the BCEC — touted to be so full that it had to be expanded — is generating less than half the hotel room nights that had been predicted in the 1997 feasibility study on which the decision to build it was based. Before being cannibalized by the BCEC, even the much-smaller Hynes Convention Center had years in which it generated more.
A small group of consultants show up in city after city to prop up the declining convention industry. They made the same claims in such cities as Sacramento, St. Louis and Myrtle Beach, S.C., which got the same or even worse results than were achieved here. Learn from their mistakes? In a 2005 legal deposition, Charles H. Johnson, who conducted the 1997 BCEC study, said, “Once the deal is done, if we’re not engaged, we … give them our report, our final invoice, and wish them good luck.”
But all that can be overlooked to feed the convention center authority’s patronage empire and reward political friends. None of the 80 percent of Massachusetts construction workers who don’t belong to a union will be working on the BCEC expansion, because the legislation includes a union-only project labor agreement.
Security guards also got a piece of the pie: The expansion bill extended the commonwealth’s prevailing wage law to include them.
From the beginning, BCEC expansion has been a case study in government at its worst: A group heavy with tourism industry sycophants was assembled to explore the feasibility of expansion. When they gathered each month, the choir was preached to by convention cheerleaders. After they predictably endorsed expansion, a case made by using unrealistic projections about the convention center authority’s finances and hotel-tax receipts was blessed by state officials disinterested in the substance.
Is it any wonder that the result will be to enhance the ability of politically connected players to dole out jobs and favors to the detriment of the taxpaying public? Time will tell whether it’s all just patronage or it rises to the level of cooking the books.
Charles Chieppo is senior fellow and Mary Z. Connaughton director of finance and administration at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.