Jury’s Still out on McLaughlin

While former Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) Director Michael McLaughlin has been sentenced in Federal Court for failing to fully report his salary, the case on McLaughlin’s tenure at the CHA is far from over.

Today, Sept. 5, McLaughlin is scheduled to be arraigned in Boston’s Suffolk Superior Court in room 705 on charges of unlawfully soliciting contributions to support the political campaigns of former Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and other prominent politicians.

It is a case where Grand Juries have been active for months and months, and numerous CHA employees and recent employees – including Deputy Director Diane Cohen, Vitus Shum and James Fitzpatrick – were reportedly called to testify this year in front of that Grand Jury.

At McLaughlin’s sentencing hearing in July, a good part of the entire day’s testimony was spent on discussing the case that will likely play out in Superior Court over the next year. While Federal Judge Doug Woodlock gave credence to the discussion, he refused to make any official ruling. Yet, at the same time, a good deal of the ongoing investigation went into the public record – quite a rarity when dealing with Grand Jury testimony, which is private.

During questioning that day, it was revealed publicly that a Grand Jury at the state level had been convened for some time to look into the fundraising activities of McLaughlin and several former and current employees at the CHA.

The key witness in the case against McLaughlin’s fund-raising is likely to be none other than his former best friend – former CHA Accountant James McNichols – who said he had been interviewed or had testified more than 10 times in the fund-raising case against McLaughlin.

Much of the case that will be laid out today in Suffolk Superior Court was discussed in depth at McLaughlin’s July sentencing, where there was an allegation that McLaughlin came up with a ‘blame the dead man’ excuse when his fund-raising came into question.

McNichols told the court that fundraising for Murray had been a key element of his job at the CHA and he often asked Cohen, current Executive Director Al Ewing, Fitzpatrick and Shum to contribute. They always contributed, McNichols said, but many times would complain about McNichols approaching them so often.

However, after McLaughlin was featured in a Boston Globe story in 2011 – a story that blew the lid off of McLaughlin’s reign at the CHA – McNichols told the court that McLaughlin came up with a story to help hide the fund-raising activities.

The idea was as old as the hills; blame the dead man.

They agreed to blame recently-passed Attorney Walter Underhill.

“Mike told me to say Walter Underhill told me to do it – to go raise money,” McNichols told the court. “I did it on behalf of Walter Underhill. That was the story, correct.”

McNichols said McLaughlin instructed him to talk to people who had been solicited for donations, to tell them that if anyone asked about the fund-raising, to say that Underhill had been the one who approached them for donations.

“He told me to talk to some people in the CHA and others and he would take care of the rest,” McNichols told the court in July.

However, just who came up with the idea will likely be key to the upcoming case in Superior Court.

Cohen has apparently testified before the Grand Jury and told a radically different story than McNichols. She will likely be a key figure in the defense of McLaughlin.

According to court testimony in July, Cohen told a Grand Jury this past March 11 that after the Globe story she overheard McNichols come up with the idea to blame Underhill while in the kitchen at CHA.  She told the Grand Jury that she was incensed by the whole thing because Underhill had recently passed away. She also told the Grand Jury that McNichols never approached her to speak about the Underhill cover-up story.

“Diane Cohen states she was never approached by anyone or told of anything else about fund-raising at the CHA,” McLaughlin’s attorney Thomas Hoopes said in court. “Unless I’m missing something, Diane Cohen is saying you’re the one who came up with the idea to blame Underhill for the whole fund-raising situation.”

Replied McNichols, “I don’t recall ever having any conversation in the kitchen about Walter Underhill. I don’t ever remember saying the word ‘blame’ related to Underhill…That’s all according to her statement.”

Others close to McLaughlin, including Shum, said similar things at Grand Juries earlier this year about McNichols blaming Underhill.

One mystery witness in the July proceedings, however, seemed to cement the story being told by McNichols – a witness that will likely figure big in the current case in Superior Court.

That witness was Francis Stewart, an electrician at the Lowell Housing Authority.

Stewart – an unlikely figure – told the court that McLaughlin had asked him to contribute to the Murray campaign a couple of times – purchasing tickets in 2009 and 2011 to fund-raisers.

Later, however, Stewart said he got a call out of the blue from McLaughlin instructing him to say that Walter Underhill had asked him to purchase the tickets and not McLaughlin.

“I believe the call had something to do with him saying if somebody calls you about purchasing tickets, to say it wasn’t [McLaughlin], but it was Walter Underhill [who asked me to buy them],” Stewart told the court.

All that and more will be debated at length in the coming months in Superior Court unless McLaughlin works out another plea deal. Likely, many in Chelsea once again will be dragged into the conflict concerning fund-raising activities associated with McLaughlin.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office is prosecuting the case.

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