Robert A. Cerasoli admits that he has a reputation for shaking things up in Massachusetts and makes no bones about keeping a close watch on the state and the state's authorities.

Cerasoli, the Massachusetts inspector general and a former state legislator, has been a vocal critic of the $7 billion court-ordered cleanup of Boston's harbor almost since it began in 1986. Over the past several months, Cerasoli has blasted the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the agency in charge of the cleanup, for its preference for negotiated financings, choice of financial adviser, and constant revisions to cost estimates.

But Cerasoli's interest in state authorities does not stop with the water authority. Since taking over as inspector general in 1991, he has voiced concerns about operations at the Massachusetts Industrial Finance Agency, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and the state treasurer's office.

Officials running the authorities say they are concerned that Cerasoli's criticisms may jeopardize the success of future bond sales.

"He can be a loose cannon," one major state issuer said recently. "Denouncing a bond sale in the local press, as he has done, scares away potential investors. It is immaterial whether he has a case or not."

The inspector general says he knows authorities play an important role in the state, but he believes his job requires him to voice criticisms loudly.

"When an authority does something right, then they'll certainly be congratulated for it," Cerasoli said in a recent interview. "But when something is going wrong, I'm going to state my views on it."

In 1980, the state legislature created the office of inspector general to act as a watchdog over all activities that require government or government-backed spending. The new office was a response to the scandal surrounding a failed Massachusetts housing project.

Although the inspector general does not have the ability to prosecute, he can make suggestions to the state attorney general about possible abuses of power and he has the authority to issue subpoenas.

One market source who closely follows Massachusetts issues said he believes Cerasoli has a personal vendetta against the MWRA because his initial opposition to aspects of the cleanup plan went unheeded.

Cerasoli strongly rejects such charges, which various state officials have also leveled, that he is using his office to crusade against the authority system in general.

"We have jurisdiction over 351 cities and towns, 14 counties, 133 water and sewer districts, 82 housing authorities, 31 redevelopment authorities, plus all the state authorities," Cerasoli said. "We have too broad a mandate for us to get bogged down in personal things."

The legislation creating the office allows the inspector general to serve two five-year terms. So when Joseph Barresi, the only other person to hold the post, finished his second term in 1991, the office was up for grabs.

Cerasoli, 45, was chosen by a committee comprised of Gov. William Weld, Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, and state Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci.

"We received 70 or so qualified resumes for the job," DeNucci said. "Bob's background in the [state] House post audit committee and the House ethics committee made him a very good candidate."

From the beginning of his political career, Cerasoli has made ethics and fiscal propriety his top priorities. A plaque in his office quoting Edwin O'Connor's "All in the Family," sums up the inspector general's feelings on Massachusetts politicos: "Absolutely nothing of the slightest permanent value can be done for this state unless you first get rid of the grubs who've been munching it to death for years."

After graduating in 1969 from American University in Washington, D.C., Cerasoli went to work in the Massachusetts State House as a legislative aide.

The Quincy Democrat

Makes Run for State House

By 1974, the Quincy Democrat had decided to make his own run at the state House of Representatives. He won a seat representing the 40,000 people who live in the Quincy and Weymouth area, a southern suburb of Boston.

In 1979, Cerasoli became the youngest state legislator to chair a legislative committee when then-Speaker of the House Thomas McGee named him to head the Ethics Committee.

It was in this post that Cerasoli first gained statewide notice when he chaired the committee's 1983 hearings on Rep. James J. Craven, a senior member of the state's lower house, who was being investigated for alleged legislative ethics code violations.

The hearings found that Craven had improperly solicited a $10,000 donation from the state Department of Commerce and Development for the Jamaica Plains housing project. The project paid rent to a trust fund from which some of Craven's family benefited. As a result of Cerasoli's hearings, Craven became the first Massachusetts legislator to be reprimanded on the floor of the House.

In 1984, Cerasoli aligned himself with Rep. George Keverian, D-Middlesex, in a fight for the post of Speaker of House that resulted in McGee's losing the job to Keverian.

Keverian and Cerasoli had been friends since Cerasoli joined the legislature. For supporting him for speaker, Keverian named Cerasoli chairman of the influential House Post Audit and Oversight Committee.

As head of the committee, Cerasoli oversaw all of the auditing of state authorities and agencies and recommended specific legislation to correct and improve their flaws.

It was during his tenure in the House that Cerasoli began speaking out against the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

In 1984, the Massachusetts legislature created the MWRA to provide clean water and sewer services for 61 communities in the state.

Two years after its creation, the authority was charged with a task that would become one of the largest bond-supported projects in the country. To date, the authority has issued $2.2 billion of bonds for the harbor cleanup.

For years, Boston Harbor had been the repository of billions of gallons of poorly treated and, in some cases, entirely untreated raw sewerage. After heavy rains, as much as 450 million gallons of human waste would pour into the harbor.

The city of Quincy, on shore of the harbor, used the commonwealth over the deteriorating condition of its waterways.

In 1986, after two years of legal haggling, U.S. District Court Judge A. David Mazzone issued an order outlining a cleanup schedule for the harbor. MWRA was chosen to manage the cleanup.

That's when the fight began for Cerasoli.

His first contention about the cleanup job was that it could not be done.

He argued that years of pumping waste into the harbor had made cleanup impossible without dredging the harbor. He said that the money might better be spent on alternative ways of disposing of the waste.

The state came up with a way to help move the cleanup along, but it was not the one Cerasoli expected.

After a long search, then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis decided on a location for an $87 million sludge treatment plant to speed the cleanup of the harbor: the Fore River Staging Area in Quincy, Cerasoli's district.

"One of the things that had to be done as part of the cleanup process was the placement of this sludge facility," Cerasoli said. "Basically, what happened was they decided to put the largest sludge facility in the United States in my district."

At a hearing on the location of the plant, Cerasoli said the MWRA was behaving "like a bunch of Nazis."

He said he equated the authority with Nazis because of the heavy-handed way in which MWRA officials came into his district, dictating what would be constructed there, without getting input from residents.

The Sludge Plant

Turns Out Fertilizer Pellets

The Quincy sludge plant now processes more than 400,000 gallons of liquid sludge a day that used to be pumped into the shallow water of the harbor, and converts that sludge into fertilizer pellets.

Even after the decision to put the plant in his district, Cerasoli continued to lobby against the actions of the authority through the rest of his tenure on Beacon Hill.

Cerasoli's tenure in the state House of Representatives would be cut short, though, because of political decisions he made at the end of Dukakis' term.

Cerasoli was initially on the fast track of Massachusetts politics. But he began to grow disenchanted with the actions of his own party and its leadership.

He accused Dukakis of being soft on crime, took credit for exposing the crimes committed by Willie Horton after he was part of the state's prison furlough program, and began to attack the state's reliance on financial advisers.

But in late 1989, Cerasoli put the final nail in his legislative coffin when he voted against a controversial 15% tax increase that was being heavily lobbied for by Keverian.

"George was a very good speaker and he let us do what we wanted," Cerasoli said. "But I just couldn't support the tax increases without some substantial changes in the funding of state programs."

The decision to vote against the taxes alienated Cerasoli from the leadership and he subsequently resigned from his post as chairman of the Post Audit and Oversight Committee before the leadership replaced him.

He said his recent criticisms about the water authority have little to do with his fight against the cleanup plan while he was a Quincy representative.

"It is easy to say that I have a vendetta against the authority, but it's not true," he said. "When I was a representative, I worked for 40,000 People and did what I could for them. Now, I represent six million and it's the same principle."

Last nonth he publicly questioned the MWRA's decision to change financial advisers to First Albany Corp, from Lazard Freres & Co.

After reviewing the complaints raised by Cerasoli, the board of directors of the water authority decided to approve the change.

Cerasoli said the only way to prevent misuses of power and state moneys is by better educating the public.

"People have to become more educated in the subject matter," he said. "That goes for legislators and voters alike. If that happens, then the voters will demand change."

At the end of 1992, his office submitted a bill to the state House of Representatives that would limit the amount of negotiated bond sales the state and its authorities could issue.

Cerasoli said that he felt there was "no reason that the state or any of its authorities could not sell bonds competitively."

But bankers and financiers - both those who work on the state's bond issues and those who do not - scoffed at the idea.

They said it would have been prohibitively expensive to sell bonds competitively from 1989 through September 1992, when the state's bonds were rated Baa by Moody's Investors Service and BBB by Standard & Poor's Corp.

'His Statements

Are Just Too Broad'

"His statements about the municipal markets are just too broad, " said one underwriter of Massachusetts municipal debt. "It doesn't sound like he thinks there are any honest deals out there."

The criticisms in Massachusetts have also been along those lines.

"Mr. Cerasoli's contentions about financing only show how little he really knows about selling bonds," a state government official said. "Rlying on competitive financings is just too big a crapshoot."

Most opponents of the inspector general refuse to criticize him publicly, saying they are leery of becoming targets of his probes.

His supporters say the questions the inspector raises will benefit the commonwealth in the long run.

Douglas MacDonald, executive director of the water authority, said his relationship with Cerasoli has been productive. "Bob Cerasoli is carrying out the duties of his office," MacDonald said. "I have been impressed by the fair-mindedness of the inspector general."

Cerasoli has pledged to remain critical of the authorities as long as they continue to issue debt, and he said there are more than enough problems in the state to keep him busy.

"Procurement of financial services, whether in underwriting, or legal advice, or serving as a financial adviser, must be better regulated," he said. "Whether it has to do with general obligation bonds or investing in a state pension fund, the state is obliged to improve the process.

Cerasoli said he will most likely attempt to serve another term as inspector general.

He clearly enjoys the post and the flexibility it allows him. He said that the most important thing he wants to do through his term is better educate the people of Massachusetts about how their money is being spent.

"You know, there's a lot of money made on these bond sales, and the taxpayer is paying debt service on it all," Cerasoli said. "When I took over this office, I decided to put the best team together and tell the taxpayer exactly what they're paying for. That's what we're about here."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.