25 Investigates: Six-figure earners, double-dippers at UMass President's Office

by: Eric Rasmussen, Erin Smith Updated:

BOSTON - UMass President Marty Meehan – who urged budget “belt-tightening” after the state university system hit up students and taxpayers for more money – has been paying six-figure salaries to more workers in his downtown, high-rise office and doling out paychecks to double-dipping retirees already raking in hefty state pensions.

A 25 Investigates review of state payroll data found the number of workers in Meehan’s UMass Central Office went down slightly in 2016, but overall pay for those who worked there went up last year.

The UMass Central Office paid out at least $100,000 to 152 employees in 2015 and so far, this year, there are at least 160 on the payroll with six-figure salaries, according to state records.

“For state employees, UMass is nirvana – heaven. You want to go there,” said Gregory W. Sullivan, a former state Inspector General who now works at the watchdog Pioneer Institute. “These administrators literally made millions in pay raises. Then it leveled. Now it's going back up again.”

WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE TO HEAR UMASS PRESIDENT’S RESPONSE

25 Investigates also found 17 retirees collecting state pensions while on the UMass Central Office’s payroll – a practice that’s perfectly legal.

State pensioners on the payroll

One of those retirees is former UMass spokesman Robert Connolly, who rakes in an annual pension paycheck topping $86,000 – in addition to his new, part-time job making $100 per hour as a “special assistant” at UMass.

Connolly also received a “buyout” payment for more than $76,000 when he retired last year – a payment he said he received for unused vacation and sick time.

Connolly, who earns up to $48,000 a year for roughly nine hours of work a week as an assistant, told 25 Investigates, “The university valued the things I had done.”

Connolly defended his position by pointing to his current work for UMass, including writing press releases, ghostwriting newspaper opinion pieces and producing commercials, including one in which Meehan promotes UMass as “one of the most innovative universities in the world.”

But Sullivan criticized the hiring of state pensioners, saying, “If they were thinking about the taxpayers’ interest, they would never allow this to happen.”

UMass President called for ‘belt-tightening’

25 Investigates began looking into spending at the UMass President’s Office after Meehan called for “continued belt-tightening” after raising student tuition for the third year in a row this past summer at the same time taxpayers are being asked to shell out more money.

UMass spokesman Jeff Cournoyer defended pay increases at the taxpayer-funded state university system, saying tax dollars make up only a portion of the cost to run UMass.

But 25 Investigates found that more than $518 million in taxpayer money is expected to go toward UMass operating expenses just this fiscal year alone, according to state budget officials. That’s an increase from the $512 million taxpayers paid last fiscal year to keep the five-campus state university system running.

Cournoyer, whose own salary is nearly $200,000 a year, acknowledged salaries at the President’s Office had increased but also pushed back against 25 Investigates.

“… I disagree with the underlying assertion that central office salaries are increasing at a rate that the taxpayers need to be informed about,” Cournoyer wrote in an email to 25 Investigates.

Cournoyer added that he expects payroll to decrease this year at the UMass President’s Office, which is on the 31st floor of a high-rise Boston building just around the corner from the State House.

Meehan defends pay increases

25 Investigates finally caught up with Meehan at his downtown office building just before this month’s UMass Board of Trustees meeting – after asking for an interview with the former U.S. congressman for nearly a month.

When Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen asked Meehan if his own office is doing the budget belt-tightening that he called for earlier this year, Meehan said, “Yes we have. As a matter of fact, we've cut the number of employees by three.”

Meehan also defended pay increases in his office, telling 25 Investigates, “(A) 2.5 percent (increase) is lower than what the state average is.”

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen asked Meehan, “In your office, specifically, is that really belt-tightening?”

But Meehan insisted he’s being proactive to save money, telling 25 Investigates, “As a matter of fact, we've cut the number of employees by three. In terms of – we've also set up a program – we're saving millions of dollars by buying energy.”

Amy Blanchette, a new student at UMass Dartmouth, said she wonders whether the UMass President’s Office is really feeling the pinch.

“Why are their salaries going up? They should be going down to help us as students,” said Blanchette, a single mom with two jobs. “I don't imagine that they're struggling like us as students – struggling to work multiple jobs, to keep your grades up, just afford to live, and just to get by.”

Blanchette said she knows about cutting back.

“I don't own a car because I can't afford one. I live on my own. It's just myself and my 12-year-old son,” said Blanchette. “It's very scary.”

25 Investigates’ summer intern, Aaron Shneider, contributed to the research for this report.

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