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Scandal charges strike nerve during House budget debate


By Gintautas Dumcius


STATE HOUSE — Fiasco or scandal?

Which word to affix to recent troubles at state agencies became a surprise point of contention on the House floor Monday, as lawmakers rushed a $36.5 billion budget to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk.

Both branches overwhelmingly signed off on the proposal, but Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican who voted against the budget, used the debate to tick through the list of problems with ties to departments run by the governor, leading to a rebuke from Denise Andrews, an Orange Democrat.

The budget commits $186 million for the embattled Department of Children and Families, and moves the agency, which drew scrutiny after lapses in case management led to the death of a five-year-old, towards a 15-to-1 case to caseworker ratio.

Lawmakers on Monday also approved a House-Senate compromise that regulates compounding pharmacies and strengthens oversight. The legislation was spurred by tainted drugs, compounded by Framingham’s New England Compounding Center, leading to the deaths of 64 people and thousands of sickened people in 20 states in 2012.

“Over the past eight years, the scandals in the Patrick administration have arisen from lack of oversight and leadership,” said Lombardo, a former selectman. “They have cost the Commonwealth millions and millions of dollars, and they have cost dozens and dozens of lives across the country.”

Lombardo also pointed to the troubles at the state crime lab, where a former chemist allegedly tampered with drug evidence, leading to questions about convictions that were based on the evidence. Taxpayers were saddled with a $330 million tab, Lombardo said.

“We continue to throw more and more money at these departments, but the lack of reforms and change in leaderships and oversight leaves little confidence that we will not soon again see more scandal and more cost to the taxpayers,” Lombardo said.

Lombardo’s comments received an admonition from Andrews, who was elected in 2010 and previously worked at Novartis Consumer Health in New Jersey and Procter and Gamble in Ohio.

Andrews said the governor and lawmakers have worked on transparency, performance management and accountability issues, and “understanding where we have cracks and failures, and as soon as those show up, we’re addressing them.”

“No one likes the fact that we’ve had people die in our compounding pharmacy fiasco,” added Andrews, a founding partner at Legacy Unlimited, a consulting company. “Scandal? Not appropriate, wouldn’t use that word myself, respect the gentleman’s prerogative to use what he wants.”

Using that word, she said, offers voters, through media reports, a “really distorted view of what we do here in Boston to bring in a prudent, responsible budget.”

The budget includes priorities voiced by lawmakers, including education, health care affordability, job creation, and dealing with the state’s drug overdose epidemic, she said.

As for the Department of Children and Families, Andrews said an analysis of some of its failures showed the case ratios were “unmanageable” for caseworkers “to perform.”

Andrews said she respected the differences of opinion she has with Lombardo. “But I don’t want to sit silent and for one minute have anyone think that we’re not doing our job down here,” she said to applause from some colleagues.