All last week, I was hearing rumors about a forthcoming hold-on-to-your-hat article in the Republican. While the details varied a bit from informant to informant, the general outline was this: Stephanie Barry would have an article in the Sunday paper that would look at Mayor Domenic Sarno’s relationship with the ubiquitous, and controversial, political consultant Charlie Kingston.
Oh, boy, did she ever.
“Mayor Domenic J. Sarno won a third term by a landslide in 2011,” began Barry’s long, detailed article, “but municipal records obtained by The Republican raise questions about who really wields the most power at City Hall.”
The article takes on one of the strongest back-channel criticisms of Sarno’s administration—namely, that Kingston calls way too many of the shots. Barry bolsters her case with emails and voicemail messages between Kingston and Tom Walsh, the mayor’s former press aide, which she obtained through a public records request.
The picture that emerges is far from flattering for the mayor; Barry writes that “documents suggest Kingston green-lights everything from policy and personnel decisions to appointments to municipal boards and commissions.”
In an interview, Walsh told Barry that Kingston signed off on just about all the mayor’s public statements as well as his hiring decisions and appointments. “I think the voters’ intent on who they elected was clear, but, at times, I felt that I was working for Mr. Kingston,” Walsh said.
I won’t rehash all the juicy details of Barry’s reporting here, because, really, once I start, I doubt I’ll be able to stop. Besides, the article deserves to be read in full to get the full picture, one that suggests the mayor hardly makes a move without first running it by Kingston. Particularly intriguing is Barry’s description of Kingston’s knack for staying, more or less, under the radar; Walsh, for instance, told Barry that he’d been directed to use his personal email account, not his City Hall address, for correspondence with Kingston, who in turn used an account under his wife’s name.
Barry also points out that Sarno is not the first Springfield mayor to rely on Kingston; the list of former mayors who’ve turned to him as an advisor is so long that it’s probably just quicker to say: not Charlie Ryan.
Sarno’s relationship with Kingston has dogged him for years; during his first run for mayor, in 2007, Kingston’s visible role in Sarno’s campaign raised eyebrows. When I asked then-candidate Sarno about Kingston in an interview, he described him as an old family friend and supporter. “I stand on my own two feet,” Sarno told me at the time. “I get advice and things from all different people from all walks of life, and I try to weigh the pros and the cons, and I make the decision. [If] I feel comfortable with something, know I can hang my hat with why I voted this way, then I'm going to do that. I'm not going to run and hide from a dear family friend of 55 years through my father."
Commenting to Barry about the extent to which he relies on Kingston, Sarno made similar comments, which, perhaps inadvertently, nonetheless invoke Kingston’s influence: “I’m the mayor. I make the decisions. Charlie has always indicated to me: Make good policy decisions for the citizens of Springfield. ... Charlie always tells me: You make the decisions and always make them based on good public policy. The politics will fall as they may. … I only ask him for the pros and cons.”
Sarno also took a shot at Walsh, who left City Hall in December, dismissing him was a disgruntled former employee. Put aside for a moment the fact that Barry based her reporting in large part on public records, which, by law, Walsh had to provide her. (Put aside, too, the fact that, based on Barry’s reporting, it sounds like Walsh would have had plenty to be disgruntled about.) Then mayor’s characterization of Walsh just doesn’t ring true to me, based on my interactions with Walsh over the years. As I’ve written before, I always found Walsh to be professional and responsive. I also found him to be scrupulous—sometimes frustratingly so, to be frank, at least from a reporter’s perspective—in avoiding trafficking in gossip or dishing dirt about the administration, both before and after he left City Hall.
Perhaps the most curious part of Barry’s story is the section with the subhead “Kingston and the casino question,” which circles around the issue of whether the consultant has any role in the fierce competition to bring a casino to the city. “The casino topic … is scant in the emails and voicemails between Walsh and Kingston,” the article notes. So why, then, bring it up? Might Barry still be chasing down more information for a follow-up on this topic? (And, of course, it always bears repeating that Barry’s employer has a vested interest in the outcome of the casino competition: Penn National’s plan for a North End casino involves buying the Republican’s property at 1860 Main Street, a conflict of interest that the newspaper should disclose every time it writes about the casino issue but too often fails to do.)
Certainly, the article suggests more stones remain to turn over. According to Barry, FBI agents “have been conducting interviews with a small number of municipal insiders in recent weeks” about Kingston’s “ties to City Hall.” The head of the FBI’s Springfield office declined to comment on that matter, Barry reported.