Between the Lines: The Comeback Kid
Like the phoenix rising from the ashes … here comes Chris Asselin again?
When the email showed up in my inbox—a quick note alerting me to a story on MassLive.com—I wondered for a moment if it were an early April Fool’s gag: fresh off a stint in prison on federal corruption charges, former state Rep. Chris Asselin is considering a return to electoral politics.
Asselin had held the 9th Hampden seat, representing parts of Chicopee and Springfield, for two terms before being tossed out in 2004, not long after his indictment. That probe snared a number of members of the extended Asselin family, including patriarch Ray, long-time head of the Springfield Housing Authority, for their roles in an elaborate scheme that included everything from taking bribes from SHA contractors to stealing quarters from laundry machines in elderly housing complexes.
In 2006, Chris Asselin pleaded guilty to charges related to his role in the scam, including accepting gifts from SHA contractors who did free work on his house and swimming pool and paid for some of his campaign materials. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, while Ray Asselin received a 10-year sentence. In all, five members of the family pleaded guilty, while another four, including Chris’ wife, cut deals with prosecutors to avoid trial. One Asselin brother, James, was already serving time for bilking a public small-business loan program he ran.
With that kind of scandal clinging to him, you might think Chris Asselin would opt for a quieter re-entry to life outside the prison walls. Think again.
At the very least, Asselin appears to recognize that voters might be just a teensy bit reluctant to vote for him, given all those guilty pleas in his not-so-distant past. In an interview with the Springfield Republican, Asselin offered up these words of remorse to reporter Jack Flynn: “First I want to say that I’m sorry; I know I disappointed a lot of people, and I disappointed myself.”
Apparently some voters are ready to forgive and forget, at least as Asselin tells it. “I’ve had people come up to me and ask me to run—they say they liked my style, the way I operated, the way I was responsive to them,” he told Flynn.
Incumbent Rep. Sean Curran, who beat Asselin in 2004, does not appear overly concerned, offering this succinct, and stinging, response to the Republican: “I thought he was still in prison,” Curran said. “Isn’t he still on probation?”
Asselin better get used to frequent reminders of his time behind bars if he does, indeed, decide to run for the seat. That might prove a challenge given his notoriously thin skin. In the midst of the corruption probe, the then-state rep suggested that the investigation was prompted by envy of his family’s prominent political position, adding, for good measure, a line that has haunted him ever since: “Human beings are despicable.” He called the feds “a nasty bunch of people,” and allegedly threw a fit at the SHA office, calling an employee who was a witness in the case “a dumb fucking Polak” (an allegation Asselin denied). Meanwhile, court documents from the case included dialogue caught on wiretap in which Asselin urged his father to “take care” of “the dirtbags who tried to do you in.”
But is Asselin’s comeback as farfetched as it sounds? In Springfield, politicians and public figures have a remarkable ability to bounce back after a brush with the law. Take, for instance, then-City Councilor Frankie Keough, who was convicted of tax evasion in the 1990s but then landed a job running a city homeless shelter. Or Fred Swan, who was hired to a $79,000 job at a troubled city charter school not long after finishing a house arrest sentence he received after pleading guilty to nine felony corruption counts in 2005.
Of course, neither of those stories have especially happy endings: Keough went on to steal from the shelter, extort from contractors and commit perjury on the stand—escapades that earned him a three-year prison sentence and two years probation. (Right now he’s back in prison for trying to take furniture from the Rhode Island vacation home he had to forfeit as part of the case.) Swan, meanwhile, has stepped down from his job at the Hughes Academy in response to pressure from parents who felt his role there put the school, already in danger of losing its charter over a cheating scandal, at greater risk. Will Asselin’s comeback fare any better—or are voters unwilling to take yet another risk?”