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Worcester’s Main South Revival Threatened By Infighting

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

 

Cash-flow issues within the Main South CDC spurned a heated argument between Steve Teasdale and Billy Breault.

Steve Teasdale, the typically soft-spoken head of one of Worcester’s non-profit corporations, just got into an obscenity-laden public shouting match with Billy Breault, the usually loud-mouthed head of one of the city’s community organizations.

This is the same Billy Breault, head of the Main South Public Safety Alliance, who made international news this spring. That’s when he led a public, ethnophobic protest of a Main South funeral home's handling of the body of one of the two Chechnya-born Boston Marathon bombers.

The Board of Directors of Main South Community Development Corp., of which Teasdale is the long-time executive director, has backed him and has banned Breault from the agency’s offices. Breault has since apologized for verbally assaulting Teasdale.

The catalyst for the macho mouth-off was the Main South CDC's cash-flow problems. Those, in turn, stem in large part from legal questions about the use of federal housing funds that flowed through City Hall over a three-year period to five Worcester non-profit agencies–including Main South.

Last month, City Hall accused those agencies of misusing a total of up to $3.7 million in federal money in 2010, 2011 and 2012. According to the city, the agencies, which deny any wrongdoing, spent the money on ineligible items, including administration and employee salaries.

No wonder, that Steve Teasdale lost his temper.

‘The thing you gave me’

At the center of these shenanigans–as late, long-time city manager Franny McGrath might have called them–is a federal probe that has so far netted the criminal conviction of a former CDC staffer and the ouster of a City Hall bureaucrat.

In June 2012, a Lowell man was convicted in federal District Court in Boston of soliciting and accepting bribes in exchange for assisting in awarding federally funded neighborhood rehabilitation work to a contractor. Gabriel Felix Cortes pleaded guilty to three counts of soliciting and accepting bribes in connection with federally funded neighborhood revitalization contracts, and one count of witness intimidation.

According to the federal Department of Justice at the time, Cortes, in 2011, was employed at separate times by Oak Hill Community Development Corp. and South Worcester Neighborhood Improvement Corp. From 2009 through 2011, those two non-profit agencies received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for lead-paint removal and residential and neighborhood revitalization and  rehabilitation projects.

Cortes’ job included soliciting bids from contractors for such work. One of the contractors began cooperating with an investigation into HUD-funded work, wearing recording devices to meetings with Cortes. At a meeting in April 2011, Cortes solicited the contractor, who then paid Cortes $1,500 in exchange for Cortes’ assistance in getting an $80,000 contract at a Crown Street, residence in Worcester. When the contractor did not win the bid, Cortes told him that, if Cortes had to, he would return “the thing you gave me”–an apparent reference to the $1,500.

At a meeting in June 2011, Cortes told the contractor what amount to bid on three federally funded projects, including one at a Colton Street residence in Worcester. Cortes said during a recorded meeting that he wanted the contractor to win the Colton Street contract, and stated, “I have to give you something because I didn’t give you the other one.”

At a recorded meeting in July 2011, Cortes instructed the contractor to submit two bids for work at a Camp Street residence in Worcester–one, for himself in the amount of $21,000; and one, for another contractor in the amount of $23,500–and solicited a bribe of $1,500. That same day, during a recorded meeting, the contractor paid Cortes a $1,000 bribe and, a week later, a second installment of $500.

At an August 2011 meeting, Cortes and the contractor discussed the fact that Cortes had heard from other contractors that federal agents were asking questions about whether Cortes was soliciting bribes. During a recorded meeting, Cortes told the contractor that if federal agents should ask the contractor whether he gave Cortes money “you just got to deny that. You’re not going to say, ‘yeah.’”

In December 2011, Cortes was arrested at a recorded meeting with the contractor during which the contractor paid Cortes another bribe of $400 in anticipation of bidding on another federally funded project. FBI agents recovered the $400 bribe from Cortes at the arrest.He pleaded guilty in June 2012 and, last October, was sentenced to 27 months in prison and fined $3,000.

Cortes' bust was followed four months later, in March 2012, by the ouster of Jacqueline Vachon-Jackson as the city's chief of staff for economic development.

Conflict over conflict-of-interest charge

Vachon-Jackson departed under a conflict-of-interest cloud. She’s also being blamed–at least, in part–for the federal-funding fiasco.

In March 2011, City Manager Mike O'Brien placed Vachon-Jackson on administrative leave after learning of her questionable dealings with a private developer, James Levin, operating as 5 May Street Apartments LLC. Levin’s LLC, which bought the property in 2010 for $435,000, put up only a small percentage of the $2.4 million in public funds that were subsequently earmarked for renovation of a rundown, four-story apartment building in the Main South neighborhood. (This February, the city bought the still-troubled property–then valued at $764,000–at public auction for a mere $200,000.)

Levin's LLC had a mailing address of 21 Illinois St. in Worcester, the location of University Park Lofts. And that's where Vachon-Jackson had purchased a residential condo unit–with a private mortgage - from Curtis Mueller, reportedly a business associate of Levin's. A private mortgage can enable a buyer to save thousands of dollars in interest and closing fees because the mortgage doesn't go through a bank.

Reportedly, Cortes, who either quit or lost his Oak Hill CDC job during the federal probe of his work there, was hired the same day by South Worcester NIC. Vachon-Jackson was said to have played a key role in getting him the South Worcester job. She was also the key person in charge of the HUD funding that City Hall now maintains was misused by Main South CDC, Oak Hill CDC, Worcester Common Ground, Worcester Community Housing Resources, and Worcester East Side CDC.

In placing Vachon-Jackson on administrative leave, O'Brien issued a brief statement. He couldn't discuss Vachon-Jackson's ouster, he wrote, because it was “a personnel matter.”

In response, Vachon-Jackson, in an interview, said that she was forced out in retaliation for a sexual-harassment complaint that she had filed–a few days before her ouster–with the city Human Resources Department. “None of this would have happened if I was one of the boys,” she reportedly said.

Boys can be boys–and girls can be girls, too.

The male-dominated power structure inside City Hallmay be one reason why District City Councilor Sarai Rivera, whose district includes Main South and South Worcester, has yet to back the Main South CDC in its Block Grant funding fight with City Hall. Another reason may be the bad blood that apparently remains between her and Barbara Haller.

Rivera reportedly says she hasn't taken a stand on the fight over Block Grant funding for Main South CDC because she represents more than Main South. That may be quite true.

Then again, Haller, the incumbent whom Rivera defeated in the 2011 Council election, has long been been a big backer of Main South CDC and a close friend of its executive director, Steve Teasdale. Haller also serves on the Board of Directors of the Main South CDC, making her one of Teasdale's bosses.

Rivera, who's also a pastor, maintains she's a big supporter of the three CDCs operating in her district: Main South, South Worcester, and Worcester Common Ground. She is also tight with Centro Las Americas, the city's primary Latino community center. And in a place like Worcester, discrimination against Latinos can equal that against women.

In the 2010 U.S. Census, nearly 21 percent of Worcester residents identified themselves as Latino or Hispanic. That represented a significant increase over 15 percent in 2000. In sheer numbers, 11,700 people who responded to the 2010 Census said they were either Latino or Hispanic.

Much of the Puerto Rican portion of Worcester's Latino/Hispanic community feel they've historically been–and continue to be–short-changed by the city's WASP-dominated business and charitable leaders as well as its Irish-American-dominated political and government leaders. It's why they've made numerous efforts in recent decades to elect one of their own to the City Council.

One of the founders of Centro, in 1977, was Luis Perez, who was a state judge until three years ago. He was also one of the catalysts in the establishment, in 1971, of Asociacion Latina Para Progreso Y Accio, Worcester's first Latino grass-roots community-advocacy organization.

In 2011, the year after Perez hung up his judicial robe and resumed private law practice, he ran Sarai Rivera's successful City Council election campaign. It was her first run for public office. The only other Latino to have served on the Council: Juan Gomez, who served on the Council from 2000 to 2006 and is now Centro's president and CEO.

Still a long way to go

To put all of this in context, Main South was once the primary dumping ground for nearly all of Worcester's social-service agencies and homeless shelters. Over the last three decades, the largely lower-income neighborhood has fought back.

The George Washington of Main South's fight for liberty was the late Janice Nadeau–elected as Main South and South Worcester's first-ever district councilor, in 1987. She died in 2002 and Barbara Haller was elected that year to replace her. 

Nadeau had been the leader of Fair Share, a movement based on the organizing principles of '30s Chicago radical organizer Saul Alinsky - one of Barack Obama's heroes. Alinsky wrote two landmarks books–Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals–advocating a radical approach to solving socioeconomic problems, including poverty and injustice.

More than a century ago, Main South was a summertime respite for many of Worcester's rich and elite. This was before the advent of the auto, when Main South was relatively rural and remote compared with the downtown area.

In recent decades, developers such as Russell Haims of Main South-based Hampton Properties–whose motto is “Peace, Love & Shelter”–have done marvelous restorations of many of these historical and architectural treasures. And, Clark University has closely worked with City Hall, Main South CDC and others to make the neighborhood more safe, secure and attractive.

Long story, short: While Main South has come a long way in recent decades, it's still got a long way to go. And an obscenity-laden tirade triggered, apparently, by a federal criminal conviction, a City Hall ouster and a federal-funding scandal, are hopefully only brief, non-fatal nosedives in the struggling neighborhood's continued upward trajectory.

If and when that happens, perhaps Steve Teasdale and Billy Breault can shelve their oratorical boxing gloves, join forces with Latino/Hispanic and City Hall leaders, and get back to building a healthy, sustainable community in this much-abused and long-neglected neighborhood.

 

Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production.

 

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