Monday, March 18, 2013


The place I worked was called the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Board of Registration of Real Estate Brokers and Salesmen, quite a mouthful when you’re answering the phone! The Chairman of the Board —an outside governing group appointed by the governor-- hired me to do p.r. because some state official was saying not-nice things in the news, such as it was a revolving-door agency and that real estate licenses were being sold.  The Chairman Mr. Corcoran wanted a big p.r. splash to convince consumers otherwise.
Chairman Mr. large, handsome, crewcutted, entrepreneurial Corcoran was from the world of real estate development. (You still see Corcoran Property ads to this day 40 years later.) In his business if he wanted something done he hired someone to do it. But a state agency has positions created years in advance, by mysterious behind-the-scenes mechanisms; and the only position open was Investigator. To get a p.r. position onto the payroll of a state agency would require nothing short of an act of the General Court (official name of the state legislature). Worlds in collision.
But Joe Corcoran had hired me, and I considered myself hired ,and neither one of us knew the above quite yet; and so one day in December 1973 I took the Red Line from Harvard Square to Park Street, walked up the hill past the State House and the Parker House (where Mr. Corcoran had interviewed me for the job over a drink) to a big curvy brick building in Government Center. In the large corner office sat the Executive Director, Jack McIsaac, a leprechaunish, canny person, chatting with Louise Allen, a statuesque African-American Office Manager. (Great fingernails!) You could tell from their relaxed posture that they were allies, friends even.
                  “Go home,” Jake McIsaac told me cheerfully, “and don’t come back.”
               Well, of course I came back, after marshaling Mr. Corcoran and my own political connections which weren’t nothing; and I worked there more than three years, until I was good and ready to leave. I would be working there after Jake McIsaac had left, after Louise Allen had quit. (I was an easy person to underestimate in those days, as opposed to today in my old age. Today if you underestimate me, you’ll probably be right.)
              As I said above and hope clearly, the position was Investigator; Joe Corcoran wanted p.r., so I did both jobs. Fortunately that wasn’t difficult. Working for state government in Mass. In the early 70s the biggest problem of the job was there wasn’t ENOUGH to do.
             There was a core of investigators, perhaps a dozen, and I have to say they spent a good part of their day at the race track. White-haired red-faced Billy Craven thoughtfully taught me to fudge my expense reports; ending with a flourish, “and then you can goof off!” There were three extremely fat older men called Supervisors, a title which meant their racetrack hours paid better. My nominal supervisor, Fitzy, and a woman named Irene  (who seemed to work a lot from home) covered Western Massachusetts, and so I would do some of the same. These jobs were political appointments, not civil service, although our pay and benefits were the same.
            Investigators were supposed to spend a day a week in the office; in my case two days because I was also the p.r. person and of course a woman. We would spend the day answering consumer questions over the phone and doing license checks or whatever. Every Friday I personally wrote a press release, typed it, mimeographed it, and addressed about 230 envelopes to go into all the news outlets in the state. I also subscribed to a service, that sent me newsclips for me to paste into a scrapbook. In time, I would do radio shows and also arranged TV appearances for Jake McI. I could do this on Fridays and easily in between my Investigator duties.
                  Investigations are part of the way the state regulated certain occupations. There were something like 24 state Boards of Registration who oversaw the licensing and regulation of such professions as nurses, doctors, plumbers, hairdressers, and real estate brokers. Things changed later; but in those days there was a whole suite of offices just for the real estate license commission on the 6th floor of the Leverett Saltonstall building, Government Center, 100 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA 02202.

      There were three components to investigations: random spot checks in real estate offices;  investigation of cases opened on consumer complaints; and appearances at hearings and court cases when the cases got that far.
                  On days in the field you investigated your cases and you did “general inspections,” which were random drop-ins on random real estate offices. The businesses were subject to the spot checks to make sure their brokers and salesmen had all their licenses on proper display and had the money in escrow that was supposed to be there. The businesses didn’t like that and the general inspections I considered the toughest part of my job. I would be driving around strange towns, with my propensity to get lost; and nobody was glad to see me when I arrived. Lonely work.
                  The broker would say make an appt. and come back, but the whole point of the inspections was they were drop-in. Then they would not want to show me the files on their current deals. Then they would REALLY not like it when I asked them to sign the form that let the bank show me the balance in their escrow accounts. In the beginning, when someone was mean, I might, when I got back out to my car, cry.
                  But I toughened up, of course. I took to carrying a copy of the license law with me so I could show the brokers the exact place in the law where it said could look at all that stuff. And—oh yes—I had a badge!
                  After visiting the offices in the towns I had chosen for that day’s general inspections, I called in at the banks and went through the same kind of routine. I think only once was I not successful in getting the bank to show me the money. Most of the time everything was OK. About 10% of the time there would be an expired license or a financial discrepancy; and the state might open an investigation on the office even absent a consumer complaint. One time I found a broker sitting in front of a rack that contained all the escrow checks he had collected, flapping in the breeze.  The Director called him, and I assume he opened an escrow account.                  
                  The investigations were another matter and much more interesting. A typical case involved the deal fell through because the house didn’t pass the inspection or the buyer didn’t get his financing, and the broker would not return the $1,000 deposit to the buyer.  They were interesting and some complicated.  I might have occasion to check titles or a business license at City Hall. I learned that there’s an amazing amount you can learn from public records. I also interviewed witnesses: the complainant, the complained-against, and any other relevant persons. I learned that if someone comes around your neighborhood asking questions and flashes a badge, your neighbors will be happy to say everything they know or think about you. At the end of the investigation you wrote a report and recommended either close the case or hold a hearing on it.
                  The hearings and occasional court appearances were interesting also. An administrative hearing is a whole other level of the justice system whereby a professional license can be suspended or taken away.  A lawyer named George Belsky with an alluring bald spot (I had a little crush on him for a couple weeks) would come in and  conduct the hearings in one of the well-lit, shiny-tiled conference rooms on the floor. People would testify just like in court; often lawyers were involved. (I remember one who was in the habit of taking off his shoe and looking inside it, to show how much he disrespected the whole process.)
                  I have notes on one hearing where a blind guy had been sold a house with a giant hole in the foundation. In another, the dispute was over water: there had been a promise involving an artesian well. It could be pretty dumb stuff and often hard to sort through. I saw one complainant take down a corrupt rental ageny becayse he was persistent enough press it all the way to a hearing despite it was only $25. He lost. I realized then the secret to succeeding at crime is take small amounts from many people. Nobody will care enough to see it through.
                  On the apartment rental thing, I had a chance to go undercover. These so-called agencies were not normal real estate offices: they were a scam that advertised so-called “hot lists” of apartments and charged $25.00 to people just to read these lists.  For a day or two I posed as a naive prospective tenant and paid the $25.00 and sat at a dusty table with some messy lined ledgers and wrote down the listings that fit my pretend requirements.  Then I left and went to a phone booth and called them all—maybe a dozen. Lo and behold, Not ONE was an active rental listing. Some had never been for rent according to the person on the other end of the phone. Most had been rented a long time ago. Snap, clamp.
                  While investigating the complaint, in the meanwhile I was issuing press releases and consumer tips about the places, and the regular media got involved. Finally so did the Attorney General and eventually the places fled by night.  Pretty good case, and illustrates what I enjoyed about the complaint process. Most of the money amounts were so small it would not have paid the consumer to hire a lawyer; but our agency’s services to the public were free.
                  At the end of the year, as part of my publicity role, I went through all the cases and put together statistics on how many investigations we had closed, how much money was returned to consumers, and then sent out press releases on that.  Meanwhile, each week I would write, duplicate, and mail a “consumer tip” to the 200+ newspapers and broadcast media. I had decided on a steady drumbeat of positive publicity to lift the agency’s image, rather than the big attack on the cabinet secretary that Joe Corcoran had envisioned. (My only second though is I should have been clearer with him about it.)  I also made radio appearances and arranged for Joe Corcoran and Jake McIsaac to go on local TV shows to talk about consumer protection.
                  I also lobbied up at the State House because the Board wanted educational requirements to get licensed. At that time, all you had to do pass a multiple-choice exam, fill out the application, and pay the $50.00.  The Board didn’t like that; they wanted there to be school, which would require an act of the great and general court of Massachusetts.




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