Tax Board Chairman Hangs on to Position

Anne Foley Is Under Pressure to Resign Amid Maneuvers on Beacon Hill, but Will Stay on Graham Case

By IAN FEIN

The chairman of the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board survived an attempted political coup in recent days and it now appears she will remain in office long enough to rule on a personal property tax case of importance not only to the Vineyard but possibly to the entire commonwealth.

Despite political maneuvers to undercut her authority, tax board chairman Anne T. Foley apparently will continue to preside over the highly controversial tax case between West Tisbury resident William W. Graham and the town assessors. The dispute, now the longest and costliest private property tax case in state history, has attracted widespread attention throughout the commonwealth. The appellate tax board is expected to hand down a final decision in the Graham case by early summer.

Meanwhile, four other major property tax appeals from West Tisbury residents and roughly 50 from Edgartown citizens await hearings before the state appellate tax board.

The political power struggle over the tax board chairmanship echoed through Beacon Hill corridors this week and in the end the clashes forced efforts by ranking state officials to end the warfare. A spokesman for state Sen. Robert E. Travaglini confirmed Wednesday that the senate president had intervened to bring about at least a temporary accommodation between Romney administration officials and two key tax board representatives.

The Beacon Hill collision erupted last week when Chairman Foley withdrew her name from consideration only two days before a scheduled hearing on her reappointment. Gov. Mitt Romney renominated her to the tax board post early last month, but agreed to withdraw her name at the eleventh hour last week when it appeared she lacked support in the Governor's Council. The council is an eight-member elected board that oversees and approves state judicial nominations.

By withdrawing her name, the governor allowed Commissioner Foley to stay on at the tax board in a holdover capacity and until a successor was in place. Had the council turned down her appointment last week, Chairman Foley would have been out of office immediately.

The political maneuver angered many of her colleagues, specifically critics who opposed her reappointment and believed she relinquished her powers as chairman by withdrawing her name. The four other tax board commissioners met behind closed doors with Chairman Foley last Friday and discussed her status on the board.

Private internal correspondence obtained by the Gazette provides a glimpse into details surrounding that meeting. One commissioner wrote an e-mail to the other four board members just before noon on Friday in hopes of cementing an accord reached at the meeting that morning.

"Effective immediately, Chair Foley will no longer assign hearing officers to cases or motions, hear trials, or supervise staff," the commissioner wrote. "These matters will be handled by each of the other commissioners on a rotating weekly basis, starting with Commissioner [Frank] Scharaffa and continuing on the basis of seniority.

"We also discussed Chair Foley prioritizing decision of the Graham v. West Tisbury matter for her remaining time in office, with a target completion date of June 30, 2006."

The offensive against the tax board head triggered a swift response from a top Romney official, who defended Chairman Foley in a letter written to the other four commissioners later that afternoon. The Secretary of Administration and Finance, Thomas H. Trimarco, told commissioners that the board did not have the legal authority to strip Chairman Foley of her powers.

"Neither her position nor her authority has been diminished or altered in any way by the withdrawal, for the time being, of her nomination for a new term," wrote Secretary Trimarco, whose office oversees the appellate tax board. "It is the strongly held view of this office therefore, that any action by board members that purports to limit or diminish the chair's authority is beyond the legal ability of those members, and is therefore of no effect."

Chairman Foley followed with a short letter of her own, sent to other commissioners on Monday and obtained by the Gazette .

"Notwithstanding any discussions on Friday, March 31, I will not delegate my responsibilities as chairman of the Appellate Tax Board," the chairman declared. "More specifically, I will continue to assign and hear cases, preside over the motion session, and perform all other functions attendant to the position. Please be advised that I believe the continuing performance of my duties is not only legally warranted, but in the best interests of the board."

The Boston Globe on Saturday reported that Chairman Foley resigned her tax board position, effective in five months. But, after a thorough review of the available records, it does not appear that she resigned.

A Romney administration spokesman said this week that Secretary Timarco never received a letter of resignation from Chairman Foley, and that tax board officials could not provide documents to the contrary.

Efforts to reach Chairman Foley and Secretary Trimarco for comment were not successful.

Other tax board members challenged parts of Secretary Trimarco's letter, noting that the Massachusetts attorney general - and not the office of administration and finance - holds jurisdiction over legal questions pertaining to this office. Some commissioners also took offense at the secretary's suggestion that he may step up his oversight of the tax board after last week's events.

It is understood that tension between the appellate tax board and the office of administration and finance stems from concerns among some commissioners that the Romney administration, through Chairman Foley, is exerting too much influence over adjudicatory affairs. The office of administration and finance oversees the tax board and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, where Chairman Foley worked as a tax attorney for 12 years before Governor Romney nominated her to the board last spring.

Tax board commissioner Donald E. Gorton 3rd filed a state ethics complaint against Chairman Foley last weekend. In that complaint he alleges the chairman attempted to influence his ruling in a case she had previously worked on at the Department of Revenue. Commissioner Gorton further complained that Governor Romney and Secretary Trimarco, with their recent actions and statements, were trying to intimidate him and influence his adjudicatory work.

First appointed in 1997, Commissioner Gorton has served as a holdover for the last three years, during which time Governor Romney has nominated neither him nor a successor.

Reached on Tuesday, Commissioner Gorton declined to comment on his ethics complaint or any other specific case, but he did offer a brief statement about the current political turmoil at the tax board.

"There's uncertainty that follows from recent events, and it's been difficult," he said. "But the board is committed to continuing through challenging times. Taxpayers will be heard and cases will be decided in a fair and impartial manner. People should not lose faith in that."