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High salaries targeted at state authorities

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Quasi-public agencies in Massachusetts are under fire, accused of spending too much money on salaries, but now a new plan has advanced on Beacon Hill aimed at cutting these costs.

FOX Undercover’s Mike Beaudet told you about outrageous salaries and benefits at some of these state authorities, which have been facing scrutiny ever since Gov. Deval Patrick tried to give state Sen. Marian Walsh a $175,000-a-year job at one of the authorities.

But the new plan, which has passed the state Senate, would cap the high salaries paid at the state’s 50 or so quasi-public agencies. A FOX Undercover investigation last November found found more than 500 employees making six-figures at 17 of the authorities.

That includes the salary of Benson Caswell, who FOX Undercover showed in November is one of the highest-paid people in state government. He's the executive director of the Massachusetts Health and Educational Facilities Authority, better known as HEFA , and has salary and benefits totaling $334,000-a-year.

There are also questionable expenses at HEFA, including an outing for staff featuring 18 prime rib dinners at $45 each and a hefty bar tab. Caswell even expensed a book, “Strategic Planning for Dummies,” which the agency calls a reference tool.

FOX Undercover caught up with Caswell to ask him about the spending.

The records show you spent thousands of dollars on meals, travel and other expenses. Is that a waste of money?” asked FOX Undercover’s Beaudet.

“No, it isn't,” replied Caswell.

“Why not,” asked Beaudet.

“Our authority's been prudently managed,” Caswell said.

“I also noticed you got a book called ‘Strategic Planning for Dummies.’ Has that been helpful for you?” Beaudet asked.

“I don’t know what you're talking about,” said Caswell.

“You expensed it, Sir,” said Beaudet.

State Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, sponsored a budget amendment that would cap salaries for employees at quasi-public agencies. If it becomes law, employees can't make more than the governor’s $140,000 salary without approval from the governor's top budget advisor.

“There'll be direct accountability to the secretary of Administration and Finance if in fact you need to pay someone a much higher salary and it'll kind of remove it from the cloak of secrecy that exists out there right now,” Hedlund said.

HEFA, which provides financing for hospitals, colleges and other non-profits, declined to respond directly to Hedlund’s measure but pointed out that it receives no taxpayer funding. Critics counter that HEFA is still spending public money and therefore should be held accountable.

The Senate passed the budget amendment. It is now in a conference committee where differences between the House and Senate budgets are worked out.

If it makes it into the Legislature’s final budget, the governor would have the chance to veto the measure. In a statement, Executive Office for Administration & Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez, said, “The Governor believes compensation for executives of quasi-public agencies should be set and justified in a transparent manner and reflect that these agencies are public entities working on behalf of Massachusetts taxpayers.”

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