25 Investigates: Lawmakers billed taxpayers for bogus commutes

BOSTON -- State lawmakers have charged taxpayers for their commutes to the State House when they never even made the trip to Beacon Hill, according to a 25 Investigates review that had one politician running from our camera.

Watch video above: One state rep takes off when 25 Investigates tries to get answers

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen found several legislators cheating the system after he spent the entire week of Thanksgiving 2016 at the State House – taking attendance on every lawmaker who showed up and later checking that against their daily commuting logs.

25 Investigates found state representatives Sean Garballey of Arlington, Paul McMurtry of Dedham and John Mahoney of Worcester all collected tax dollars for commutes to the State House that they never made under the per diem program.

The program paid lawmakers for every day they drove from their homes to the State House – payments ranging from $10 to $100 a day based on how far they had to travel.

Taxpayers have shelled out more than $1 million for the commutes since 2014.

Calling all internet detectives:

25 Investigates tried to track down as many lawmakers as possible, but our team could only be in so many places at once and now we need your help.
We’ve created a searchable database online of every lawmaker who collected tax dollars for commutes since 2014. If you know of a lawmaker who was out of the state, on vacation or working at another job while claiming commuting expenses, let us know.

You can find an incomplete list of lawmakers' commuting records at the bottom of this story, but click here to search and filter the full database dating back to 2014.

Arlington, Worcester reps claim questionable commutes

No one has charged taxpayers for more days traveling to the State House in the last two years than state Rep. Sean Garballey, who raked in more than $4,000 in commuting expenses at a price tag of $10 per day.

Garballey, 32, reported he was somehow at the State House all five days the week of Thanksgiving.

But staff for the Arlington representative told us he was “in district” that Monday and on Friday Garballey’s office was even locked up.

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen previously reported two dozen lawmakers, including Garballey, continued billing taxpayers for their commutes even after the plum perk ended earlier this year.

Garballey was among the Beacon Hill legislators who voted to approve the new law ending the per diem program as of Jan. 4, while giving lawmakers a multimillion dollar raise.

Garballey, who declined multiple requests for an interview, told 25 Investigates he did everything “within the law.”

Garballey isn’t the only one racking up questionable commutes on the public’s dime.

When 25 Investigates tried to find state Rep. John Mahoney at the State House Thanksgiving week last year, his staff said he was “out all week.”

Yet the Worcester Democrat claimed he commuted to the State House two days that week on a per diem form signed “under the pains and penalties of perjury.”

Mahoney has yet to respond to any emails or calls for comment – including one message left with his father.

At $36 per day, he’s charged taxpayers more than $12,000 for his commutes since 2014.

Dedham lawmaker flees from 25 Investigates

When 25 Investigates tried to ask state Rep. Paul McMurtry why he claimed to have driven to the State House two days the week of Thanksgiving 2016, the Dedham Democrat fled from Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen.

25 Investigates emailed, called and visited McMurtry’s State House office several times to ask for an interview before tracking him down in Westwood.

McMurtry was standing outside the fire station after a public party for the retiring fire chief had already ended.

When Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen walked up to ask McMurtry about his per diem files outside the station, the fire chief stepped in to demand 25 Investigates turned off the camera and later physically shoved the camera away.

25 Investigates agreed to wait on the sidewalk for a few minutes to speak with McMurtry and the camera was still rolling when the state representative made a dash for the back exit at the fire station.

McMurtry left his own car in the parking lot and fled in another vehicle – driven by Westwood Town Administrator Michael Jaillet – all to avoid answering questions about his commuting records.

25 Investigates later spoke with McMurtry by phone and offered him another chance to explain himself.

McMurtry has yet to respond to the offer. His chief of staff later emailed 25 Investigates confirming McMurtry only went to the State House one day the week of Thanksgiving, but insisted when it comes to his November and December commuting logs “all per diems are accounted for accurately.”

House lawyers: Don’t respond to 25 Investigates

25 Investigates asked nearly 40 lawmakers who claimed they commuted to the State House at least one day that week to voluntarily share their office calendars for November 2016 so we could verify their logs, but not one agreed.

Internal emails obtained by 25 Investigates show Beacon Hill lawyers told House members not to respond to our requests and instead get in touch Seth Gitell – the top public relations manager for House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

“We will either not respond (because the reporter acknowledges that the public records law is inapplicable) or we will send one response on behalf of the multiple members who received the request,” House lawyer Jennifer Mathews emailed one House staffer late last month.

Two weeks later, House lawyer James Kennedy emailed 25 Investigates an email denying the calendar request on behalf of “multiple members of the House of Representatives” and noting the legislature is exempt from public records laws.

Kennedy did not respond to requests for comment.

Watchdog calls for State House probe

“I think that this calls for an investigation by state officials,” said David Tuerck of the taxpayer watchdog Beacon Hill Institute.

“What does it tell you that they won’t share their calendars with us?” Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen asked Tuerck.

“Well, it sure looks like a cover up,” said Tuerck. “Their constituents should demand that they return these per diems unless they're willing to account for their presence on those days they were claiming to come into the State House.”

House Speaker DeLeo confirmed he asked House lawyers to get involved.

“Whatever response they gave, they gave,” DeLeo told 25 Investigates.

But DeLeo wouldn’t say much more than that and walked away at the end of a press conference when Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen asked, “Are you concerned your members are putting in per diems for days they weren’t here?”

On the week of Thanksgiving 2016, the House and Senate held sessions on Monday and Wednesday, but only a handful of lawmakers showed up.

There were also only four public events at the State House that week – all scheduled on Monday or Tuesday. By Wednesday of that week, the building was a practically deserted and only six lawmakers attended informal House and Senate sessions – lasting less than 20 minutes – that morning.

The day after Thanksgiving, 25 Investigates found empty hallways at the State House.

Lawmakers on ‘honor system’

Not every lawmaker raised red flags.

25 Investigates found several who were at the State House when they said they were, including State Rep. Frank Smizik of Brookline.

“They could've done something to me if I put my name down and I wasn't there,” said Smizik.

But that’s not exactly true.

State Treasurer Deb Goldberg said her office cuts the per diem checks to lawmakers but admitted no one in her office verifies their claims.

“We issue a check. It's an honor system,” said Goldberg.

State Rep. Aaron M. Vega (D-Holyoke) responded in an email to 25 Investigates:
"In all honesty I thought I was in the letter of the law filing these 9 days prior to the per diem change. I am working with the treasurers office to reconcile this error and the 9 days of per diem will be paid back in my next pay check. As you I take the financial responsibility of this position very seriously and am always concerned about the use of tax payers funds when paying for the State Budget which includes our own pay as legislators." 

Here is an incomplete list of lawmakers' commuting records. Click here to search and filter the full database dating back to 2014.