The Boston Herald reports that a highly paid state education official has been billing taxpayers for his meals and hotel room service:
Soon-to-depart Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland — he’s returning to teaching at the end of the academic year — puts in for expenses big and small. For example, he was reimbursed $429 by the state for a dinner for six people at Cafe Marliave — that’s $72 a person. The other diners were members of a group whose goals are to increase college attendance and graduation rates. Originally the reimbursement included a separate liquor tab, but that he paid back.
Freeland sought and got reimbursed $450 for lunches with his staff, but subsequently decided to pay that back too, according to his spokeswoman.
When he travels out of state, Freeland is fond of room service. While on a trip to Washington, D.C., for example, the ex-president of Northeastern University — where he’ll return to teach — incurred three hotel room service charges of $56, $29 and $26, all paid for by the commonwealth. The state also picked up the $62 tab for his dinner at a local seafood place in Georgetown.
Freeland’s expense records were obtained under the Massachusetts Public Records Law for the period January 2013 to June 2014 — a time when he chowed down often in Boston, too. He got reimbursed, for example, $75 for lunch at the Hilton Hotel with a prospective employee and $59 for lunch at the Parker House with the president of Framingham State University.
Freeland, who pulls down $220,000 a year, also has no qualms about putting in for tiny amounts such as 99 cents for an apple, $1.29 for a bagel and $2.50 for a blueberry scone.
In contrast, The Herald found that Education Secretary Matthew Malone only billed taxpayers for food once during the same period of time.
This kind of important reporting is made possible by the Massachusetts Public Records Law, the state law that is supposed to guarantee the public access to government documents. Unfortunately, the Massachusetts law is one of the weakest freedom of information laws in the country, earning the state an "F" in government transparency from the Center for Public Integrity. The law allows government agencies to charge high fees for copies of records, there are far too many exemptions written into the law, and the state is notoriously lax on enforcement when government agencies refuse to comply with requests for records.
If we want to know how our tax dollars are spent, we need to support efforts to update and reform the public records law, which hasn't seen any significant changes since it was passed in 1973. With a stronger public records law, watchdog journalism like this would be much more common.