Document Trail Reveals Patterns of Quiet Collusion During Year of Controversy Around Island Boat Line


Collusion: the word has surfaced more than once in recent months during a storm of politics around Steamship Authority affairs.

When Vineyard boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker was not reappointed by the Dukes County Commission in a 4-3 vote late last year, a group of Vineyard selectmen and city officials in New Bedford cried foul, among other things accusing four members of the county commission of collusion.

A series of public documents obtained by the Gazette in recent weeks reveal that there was, in fact, collusion - and plenty of it - but ironically it involved the same cast of characters who were accusing others of foul play, chief among them Mr. Parker and New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire.

The documents reveal that Mr. Parker and Mr. Leontire plotted for months to achieve the whaling city's goal to get a foothold in the public boat line that has been the lifeline to the two Islands for 40 years. The documents show that Mr. Parker and Mr. Leontire also pushed hard behind the scenes to get a piece of legislation passed that would expand the boat line board, give voting seats to New Bedford and Barnstable and dilute control by the two Islands.

Obtained by the Gazette following a request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, the documents include e-mail, postal mail and and faxed correspondence from Mr. Parker's files during his 13-month tenure as Vineyard SSA governor, and also from the city of New Bedford during the same period.

The documents offer a new window into what many observers say is one of the most peculiar periods in politics in recent memory on the Vineyard, a period marked by a noticeable gap between the elected leaders and the populace on boat line issues. The documents show that Mr. Leontire and Mr. Parker formed a unique alliance and ultimately played a strong role in shaping this odd political climate that later turned divisive.

Other key behind-the-scenes players whose names turn up in the public records obtained by the Gazette include West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell, county commissioner and ferry task force member Daniel Flynn, Woods Hole resident Frank Shephard and the Martha's Vineyard Times.

Among other things, documents reveal the following:

* An eleventh-hour legislative amendment proposed by a group of Vineyard selectmen late last year to change the way the Vineyard SSA governor is appointed was, in fact, written by Mr. Leontire. The Hon. Rudolph Kass, a retired state appeals court judge who headed a task force to study ferry issues last year, helped Mr. Leontire with language and spelling in the amendment. The amendment was aimed at overturning the county commission vote to replace Mr. Parker with Kathryn A. Roessel.

* In August, seven days before a public hearing on the Vineyard to discuss high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard, Mr. Leontire sent an urgent e-mail to Bill Burns, chief of staff for New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny. "Riggs is in trouble," Mr. Leontire wrote to Mr. Burns, calling his attention to a news story and an editorial published in the Gazette that day. "We are losing the momentum. . . . The delay is killing us. . . . Riggs is pleading for help in the form of the legislation," Mr. Leontire wrote.

* In late November, one day after Ms. Roessel threw her hat in the ring as a candidate for Vineyard Steamship Authority governor, the city of New Bedford commissioned its Boston attorneys at Goodwin, Procter & Hoar to conduct an exhaustive background check on her. The search extended to her relatives as well as her business background. Attorneys also compiled a list of names and telephone numbers of her Vineyard Haven neighbors.

* In early December, one day after Ms. Roessel was appointed by the county commission as the new boat line governor, the Martha's Vineyard Times faxed to Mr. Parker copies of all the letters to the editor that Ms. Roessel had written. Mr. Parker immediately faxed the letters to Mr. Leontire in New Bedford.

* In early January, Woods Hole resident Frank Shephard asked Mr. Leontire to follow the activities of Falmouth boat line governor Galen Robbins for a week. Mr. Leontire complied, and mailed Mr. Shephard a letter with a report on Mr. Robbins' activities.

* The New Bedford city solicitor kept a "ferry" phone list with the following names on it: Mr. Parker, Mrs. Mitchell, Mr. Shephard, Falmouth selectmen Troy Clarkson and Pat Flynn and Martha's Vineyard Times reporter Nelson Sigelman.

The public records request by the Gazette followed a request by the town of Nantucket, served on both Mr. Parker and the city of New Bedford in late December. The Gazette also asked to see documents collected in connection with the pending litigation between the boat line and New Bedford.

The documents show that the combative New Bedford city solicitor was involved to the point of obsession with nearly every issue that surfaced around the boat line in the last year. And while Mr. Parker said publicly that he was only interested in running the Steamship Authority like a business, behind the scenes he was up to his chin in politics, alongside Mr. Leontire.

When the governor's ferry task force convened a series of public hearings in February 2001, Mr. Parker adopted a publicly neutral stance. But behind the scenes Mr. Parker was actively engaged in the work of the task force, corresponding with Judge Kass both by e-mail and by fax and corresponding regularly with Dan Flynn, the Vineyard representative to the task force. Mr. Flynn kept Mr. Parker informed at every turn, and Mr. Parker was sent early drafts of the task force report. Boat line board members Robert O'Brien and Ed DeWitt also corresponded with Judge Kass; in fact it appears that Nantucket governor Grace Grossman was the only member of the boat line board who did not make contact with the purportedly independent task force.

In the end, the task force report contained only one real recommendation: to expand the boat line board by adding voting seats for Barnstable and New Bedford.

Mr. Parker said repeatedly in public that he had no position on the pending legislation. At a meeting of the Dukes County Commission in July, county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders pressed him for his views. "We are servants of the legislature; we are servants of the state," Mr. Parker said. "The legislature is responsible for creating the framework of the authority and they are entitled to change that framework, and I don't believe that the authority member needs to take a particular position."

One month later Mr. Leontire sent his urgent e-mail to Senator Montigny's chief of staff with Mr. Parker's plea for the legislation and outlining the enemies to the cause. "I, quite frankly, am disgusted. . . . Riggs is pleading for help. . . . He does not believe he can hold things together as is," Mr. Leontire wrote.

The e-mails to Mr. Burns paint a clear picture of Mr. Leontire's view of Joseph Sullivan, the Braintree Democrat who is co-chairman of the transportation committee. In late August Mr. Leontire singled out Mr. Sullivan as an obstacle. "Spoke to Strauss [New Bedford Rep. William Strauss] re: transportation committee," Mr. Leontire wrote. "He wants needless to say to work with you on getting the bill out past Sullivan," he added.

Even Sept. 11 did not deter Mr. Leontire. On Sept. 13 he sent an e-mail to Mr. Burns. "Any answer re: Steamship Authority," he wrote. The reply carried a slight tone of exasperation: "Nothing yet George. We were closed on Tuesday because of the attack and we have a fairly controversial formal session today that has been all too distracting. . . . I'll do my best to get our issue done ASAP."

The Kass legislation remains stalled in the state transportation committee today.

Meanwhile, the city is pressing ahead with its lawsuit in federal court against the boat line. Among other things, the complaint claims that the SSA freight reservation system violates restraint of trade laws.

New Bedford has tried to use the discovery process as a political club at times. In October, when Falmouth boat line governor Galen Robbins led a move to kill the high-speed ferry project because of its shaky financial footing, Mr. Leontire moved immediately to subpoena Mr. Robbins for deposition under the guise of the federal lawsuit. The deposition was later made public in a deliberate smear campaign against Mr. Robbins. Documents obtained by the Gazette show that Mr. Leontire e-mailed a transcript of the deposition to Mr. Burns.

Mr. Parker's correspondence is also revealing. One peculiar period occurred in mid-summer when a small citizens group formed on the Vineyard to question some of the positions taken by Mr. Parker - both on the issue of high-speed ferry service from New Bedford, and also on the growing split between the Vineyard and Nantucket.

Nora Nevin, one of the organizers of the group, sent an e-mail to a Nantucket resident that contained some disparaging remarks about Mr. Parker. Records obtained by the Gazette show that Mrs. Nevin apparently forwarded her e-mail to Mr. Parker by accident while she was trying to figure out how to use the mass mail function on her computer.

One week later, Mrs. Nevin's e-mails were published in the Martha's Vineyard Times.

The embarrassment of a local citizen in a local newspaper delighted West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell. "I thought Nelson's exposure of Nora Nevin's e-mail was highly entertaining," wrote Mrs. Mitchell in an e-mail to Mr. Parker in August. "Let me know what I can do to help," she added.

Mrs. Mitchell later played a key role in the campaign by public officials to overturn the appointment of Ms. Roessel.

In late December Mrs. Mitchell announced that Vineyard selectmen had adopted a resolution to support a legislative amendment to change the way the boat line governor is appointed. Adopted in the absence of any public discussion, the resolution represented a clear shift from a position voted by Vineyard selectmen last summer.

The documents obtained by the Gazette show that the draft amendment was in fact written by Mr. Leontire, with some help from Judge Kass.

"George, as odd as it sounds, it is the county of Dukes County and there is no apostrophe in Dukes," Judge Kass wrote to Mr. Leontire on Dec. 28 in a series of comments attached to a marked-up version of the legislation that Mr. Leontire had faxed to him.

When the legislative amendment first became public, the Gazette spoke with Arthur Smadbeck, an Edgartown selectman who chairs the All-Island Selectmen's Association, and he denied being its author. "I only wish that I was that intelligent, but it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I wrote this," he said.

Mr. Smadbeck would not identify the author at first.

"The person asked me to remain anonymous, they asked me to distribute this and I agreed to do it," he said.

Mr. Smadbeck later called to say that the author was in fact county commissioner Leonard Jason Jr., who had voted for Mr. Parker the week before.

Contacted by the Gazette, Mr. Jason said he wrote part of the resolution. "Most of it. I had help from a friend of mine," he said. "They agreed to help if they could remain anonymous."

And going back to the county commission vote to appoint Kathryn Roessel, Mr. Jason said, "Yeah, of course I think there was collusion. Can I prove it? Of course not. I just find it all very odd.

"So I came up with this," he said, adding, "Hey, that's what happens when we play hardball."