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State Employee making $334,000 a year: Recession No Barrier for Big Pay and Perks

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It's a tough time to be a state employee except in one corner of state government apparently immune to the ravages of the recession: the obscure state agency called the Massachusetts Health and Educational Facilities Authority.

The head of the quasi-public authority, better known as HEFA, is Benson Caswell, and he’s one of the highest paid people in state government. His salary and benefits total $334,000 a year.

“His compensation package is something you'd expect out of one of these big Wall Street firms that got in trouble as opposed to a public salary being paid to a public official at a non-profit agency,” said state Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei.

HEFA normally stays out of the public’s view because it’s off-budget and independent from the rest of state government. But the authority was in the spotlight earlier this year when the governor tried to slide one of his political allies, state Sen. Marian Walsh, D-West Roxbury, into a high-paying job there. The plan fell apart after word leaked out.

But pay packages at HEFA are high even without Walsh. In addition to his $225,000 salary, Caswell gets more than $67,000 in deferred compensation, a $22,000 contribution to his retirement, a $14,000 bonus and a $5,000 car allowance.

Caswell’s perks aren’t bad either. FOX Undercover reviewed hundreds of pages of internal HEFA records and discovered that the authority pays for Caswell's membership at the posh Boston College club in downtown Boston. The executive director regularly dines there at HEFA’s expense. A favorite meal? The swordfish stack for $16.50.

HEFA also pays for Caswell's cell phone, and his home Internet service.

“If you're in a culture that's so distant from state government -- you're by yourself, nobody's paying attention to you, you're doing what you want -- it's easy to have a warped sense of what's going on out there,” said Tisei, a Wakefield Republican.

FOX Undercover’s investigation turned up other questionable expenses. HEFA employees charged meals at some of Boston's finest restaurants, including Locke Ober, Café Fleuri, located inside the Langham Hotel, and The Four Seasons Hotel.

HEFA paid for hotel accomodations at the Eden Roc in Miami Beach and the Paris Las Vegas. An outing for HEFA staff included a whale watch cruise and lunch at the Chart House, featuring 18 prime rib dinners at $45 dollars each, and a hefty bar tab.

HEFA paid Boston Coach Limo $137 to whisk Caswell from an agency function in Boston to his home north of Boston. Caswell even expensed a book to help him with his job. The title? “Strategic Planning for Dummies”.

“Well that certainly makes you worry about what's going on over there,” quipped Tisei.

After a HEFA spokesman declined our request for an on-camera interview, FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet caught up with Caswell as he headed to his car after work.

Asked if the thousands of dollars spent on meals, travel and other expenses was a waste of money, Caswell said, “No, it isn’t….Our authority has been prudently managed.”

After we questioned Caswell, HEFA provided us with a written statement saying in part, "…since 2002, management has reduced total operating expenses by 22%".

"(T)he real story at HEFA is one of an efficiently run organization with a staff of only 15 hard working professionals dedicated to serving Massachusetts non-profits,” the agency said in its statement. HEFA said the restaurant meals charged to HEFA by its employees are “a customary and usual practice of investment bankers, attorneys, consultants, insurance companies and non-profit borrowers." As for the Chart House prime rib dinner, HEFA said it was a staff party that was “a management decision to recognize the extraordinary effort by the staff."

As for the book about strategic planning, HEFA said it “was purchased as a reference tool for explaining more complex strategic planning issues in lay language."

HEFA arranges financing for non-profit organizations, primarily hospitals and universities. It does not receive taxpayer funds directly from the Legislature. Instead, it covers its operating costs with the fees it charges to its customers.

But because HEFA derives its powers from the Legislature, Tisei says what the state agency is spending is public money, and the public should know about.

“People should care about it because in the end it's all of their money. No matter how you slice and dice it, the bottom line is that it's a government agency and people are paying for it one way or another,” he said.

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