State Official Hit on New Bedford Stand

Gazette Senior Writer

A prominent Boston attorney who represents the Steamship Authority fired back yesterday at the state attorney general for climbing into bed with the city of New Bedford in the latest political gambit around the public boat line that is the lifeline to the two Islands.

"In the nearly two years that the federal litigation has been pending, you should be aware that the attorney general has never before expressed any ‘concerns' to the Steamship Authority regarding any aspect of its operations," wrote John Montgomery in a letter to House Speaker Thomas Finneran. Mr. Montgomery is a partner at Ropes & Gray in Boston who is defending the boat line in a massive lawsuit in federal court. The plaintiff in the case is the city of New Bedford.

Last week, Attorney General Thomas Reilly touched off a small storm of politics on Beacon Hill when he sided with New Bedford in the ongoing war over a bill to restructure the SSA. In a surprise letter to Mr. Finneran, Mr. Reilly framed what he described as "grave concerns" about the boat line limiting access to shippers - and he threw his support behind a voting seat for New Bedford on the boat line board.

The letter surfaced several hours after Mr. Reilly met with New Bedford city officials.

Yesterday Mr. Montgomery responded with his own letter to Mr. Finneran. "[T]he attorney general's charge against the Authority is irreconcilable with the facts. If New Bedford does not have ‘equal access by water to the Islands,' it is only because New Bedford has shut the Authority out of New Bedford," Mr. Montgomery wrote.

Five days before Mr. Reilly's letter to Mr. Finneran, attorneys in Mr. Reilly's office filed a legal brief defending both the boat line's enabling act and also its licensing policy.

In his letter to Mr. Finneran yesterday, Mr. Montgomery underscored the paradox.

"In his letter, the attorney general represented that his office is participating in the federal litigation only to defend the Authority's enabling act. In fact he has joined with the Authority in representing to the court that neither the enabling act, nor the Authority's policies and practices concerning licensing, nor the Authority's conduct relating to New Bedford discriminate against . . . interstate commerce," Mr. Montgomery wrote.

In a separate letter to Mr. Reilly, Mr. Montgomery also made a formal request for all of the attorney general's public records in connection with the letter to Mr. Finneran last week.

Under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, the attorney general has 10 days to respond to the request.

Mr. Reilly's letter caused ripples in other quarters as well. In an editorial published over the weekend, editorial writers at the Cape Cod Times accused the attorney general of "talking out of both sides of his mouth."

In a blistering letter sent to Mr. Reilly yesterday, Flint Ranney, the Nantucket member of the SSA financial advisory board, told the attorney general he had a conflict of interest. "You are defending the enabling act in a federal lawsuit filed by New Bedford, while at the same time promoting the political interests of New Bedford versus the state. That is not proper, and your action may be unethical if not illegal," Mr. Ranney wrote.

Mr. Montgomery's letter was delivered to the House Speaker by hand yesterday morning, one day before a showdown was expected on the House floor over a transportation committee bill to alter the boat line enabling legislation.

Considered a compromise to the legislation proposed last year by the Kass Commission, the transportation committee bill puts a bit more distance between New Bedford and the boat line, until the whaling city can be proven as an economically viable port.

Among other things, the bill would give a provisional nonvoting seat to New Bedford for two years. New Bedford wants a voting seat, and city officials also want to change the way the Vineyard boat line governor is appointed, so they can return former governor J.B. Riggs Parker to power on the board. The Dukes County Commission replaced Mr. Parker with Kathryn A. Roessel in a 4-3 vote late last year. Mr. Parker was an open advocate for New Bedford.

After Mr. Parker was not reappointed, New Bedford pulled the plug on SSA freight service between New Bedford and the Vineyard. City officials also backed out of an agreement to launch a trial high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard this summer, and they blocked all boat line access to the State Pier. State environmental officials who oversee the use of the pier have been silent on the question of whether New Bedford has the right to block access to a commonwealth-owned pier that was built with public money.

Five members of the Cape delegation support the transportation committee bill, and five members of the New Bedford delegation oppose it. New Bedford legislators have been actively counting votes for weeks, and believe they have enough votes to win support for an amended version of the bill that favors New Bedford.

New Bedford legislators have filed an amendment to the bill that would give an immediate voting seat to New Bedford. Cape and Islands legislators have filed amendments calling for New Bedford to pay for half the operating costs of any ferry service between New Bedford and the Islands.

The bill is set for debate and a roll call vote today. Three weeks ago the same debate and roll call vote were expected, but instead Mr. Finneran diverted the two sides to a private room to try to work something out. The same scenario repeated itself last week.

If any version of the bill is approved today, it will then go to the state Senate for a vote.

Meanwhile, in their legal brief filed two weeks ago, attorneys for the boat line argued a series of complicated legal themes in the federal lawsuit.

The complaint against the SSA was filed in U.S. District Court by New Bedford city officials last year amid an aggressive campaign to open up ferry service between their city and the two Islands.

In simple terms, the complaint charges that the SSA violates interstate commerce laws by restricting ferry service between the mainland and the two Islands. Under the state statute that created the SSA in 1960, the boat line has the power to license its competitors. The core mission of the boat line is to provide dependable year-round ferry service to the residents of the two Islands.

Attorneys for the SSA have filed a motion for summary judgment in the case.

New Bedford attorneys have not filed for summary judgment. New Bedford is represented in the case by Henry C. Dinger, a partner at Goodwin, Procter & Hoar in Boston, and by former city solicitor George Leontire.

The Hon. Douglas P. Woodlock is presiding over the case.

The case has generated large volumes of paperwork, including document production, sworn depositions and expert testimony.

Arguments on the summary judgment motion are set for July 17 in federal court in Boston.

If summary judgment is not allowed, the case will go to trial.