By Seth Daniel
In 2011, the Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) was in total disarray, and Chelsea resident Tom Standish had a long history of putting things back together.
As the chair of the CHA since 2011, putting things back together is exactly what Standish, the other Board members and the staff at CHA did in the wake of the Michael McLaughlin corruption scandal.
Now, with his work seemingly done and the CHA now a high-performer in the public housing world, Standish has stepped aside from his long-time role as chair of an organization that was quite literally brought back from the grave.
“It was a clear case of corruption and the need to restore normalcy to the government,” said Standish recently from his home on the waterfront, a few weeks after stepping down as chair. “Really, it was transparent that someone was controlling the situation and had everyone in line. There needed to be five people who had the strength of character and expertise to guide the CHA back to normalcy. As it turned out, we guided it to high performance.”
After the McLaughlin scandal, few thought that the CHA would ever be put back given the tangled web of accounting fraud and the money not expended on facilities for so long.
Tenants were angry.
The public was angry.
The federal government was angry.
Those five board members, led by Standish, helped restore the confidence.
Standish said he saw a posting about the City looking for talented people to serve on the new board – as the old board had been removed quickly on suspicion of corruption with McLaughlin. With a deep resume as a regulator in the Connecticut government and in other endeavors, he was chosen right off. At the first meeting, his other four colleagues quickly elected him as the chair when he voiced concern over the minutes from the previous meetings – challenging the Board’s attorney.
From there, the rebuilding took place, including the hiring of current CHA Executive Director Al Ewing – who had served previously in the CHA administration.
“It was our task to establish a route that would bring us to restoration of faith in the performance of the duties,” said Standish. “We went on the war path. We got the support of Al Ewing and he did a fabulous job of brining a fee accountant in and an accountant from outside to do an audit…That gave us a lot of confidence in Al. You can change a lot with a big organization if you can get competent, honest people. For me personally, that was a turning point in the organization.”
Another turning point, he said, was when they were able to get the full services of the Nixon Peabody law firm and Attorney Jeff Sacks to help them guide the case against McLaughlin on behalf of the CHA. That was also assisted by Charlestown attorney Susan Whalen, whom the CHA hired.
Standish said, through a mutual friend, he had heard that Nixon Peabody was looking for a case to work on pro bono that would make a difference. As it happened, that case was the CHA’s.
“They were going to pay for it 100 percent,” he said. “It wasn’t one of those where they said they would help us for 75 cents on the dollar. It was 100 percent…Susan Whalen in conjunction with Nixon Peabody were able to move the case forward and were able to get a decision.”
While the matter of McLaughlin’s $200,000 pension is still outstanding, and the McLaughlin matter still appears as a potential Executive Session item on every CHA meeting agenda – for the most part justice was done.
Standish said he was very relieved on the day McLaughlin was sentenced in Boston Federal Court, knowing that justice had been rendered for the tenants and the taxpayers. However, he said he was conflicted about the time and type of sentence – noting that he is glad he did not have to make a recommendation to the court.
“In the end, McLaughlin said he was just trying to keep up with his neighbors,” he said. “He said they all had nice cars and nice houses and he just wanted to keep up with them. It was a totally different McLaughlin than we had seen up to then.”
Overall, Standish said he would look back at his time on the CHA as something of a gift – a way he could give back, and in turn, be given to.
“I was energized by it,” he said. “There are a lot of people who run out and look to be fulfilled in life by making money, but try as they may, nothing is more fulfilling than giving to society…The thing that’s great for me is to see public housing work in Chelsea. I’ve come to realize that high-minded people make this world work. We have been a high-performer every single year since the first one. We worked very hard – many long hours and all uncompensated. It has been invigorating and exciting. I regard it as a gift to have had the opportunity.”