Back to the Basement!

Once upon a time (and some of us at Campaign Desk remember those days), reporters knew that some pretty good stories resided in municipal basements inhabited by bureaucrats who looked as though they hadn’t seen sunshine for years. We don’t know if Boston’s Real Estate Assessing Department fits that description, but finally some reporters have made the trek into the bowels of that agency and come up with a story we’ve been waiting to see for a while.

Unfortunately, they came up with just half the story.

Boston Herald reporters Ellen J. Silberman and Jack Meyers did a little legwork and today report that Sen. John Kerry received a much-needed $6.4-million loan for his campaign late last year, based on a mortgage appraisal that valued the five-story home that Kerry and his wife own on Beacon Hill’s Louisburg Square at $12.8 million. City assessors, write Silberman and Meyers, value the house at a mere $6.6 million.

If Kerry’s half-ownership of the house is worth just $3.3 million — and not $6.4 million — then Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, in effect loaned her husband’s campaign $3.1 million. Federal election laws limit her contribution to $2,000. If, however, the bank’s assessment of $12.8 million is correct, Kerry is legally entitled to mortgage his half and do whatever he wants with the proceeds.

Normally, this is the kind of story Campaign Desk loves to see — somebody digging through public documents to find a story. Trouble is, the reporters stopped short of nailing down the underlying premise of their story — that the bank cut Kerry a break. (Not that you would know that from the “gotcha” tone of the article.)

As anyone who owns property knows, real estate assessments for tax purposes are often grossly at odds with market value. The reporters also noted discrepancies between assessed value and market value for two nearby homes that were sold recently — one higher and one lower. But two homes don’t constitute a solid base upon which to compare.

Silberman and Meyers then continue the stretch, focusing next on this relationship: The mortgage lender in this case was Mellon Bank of New England, a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based Mellon Bank N.A. As it happens, Mellon is also a trustee of the trust that Kerry and Heinz Kerry set up to hold ownership of the home. (The trust’s name: the T&J Louisburg Square Nominee - get it?)

The reporters conclude that because of her ties to Pittsburgh, Teresa Heinz Kerry has “a long history with Mellon Bank” and thus might be the kind of customer the bank wants to keep happy with an unrealistically high appraisal and subsequent generous loan.

There may be something to that — but if there is, as of today, Silberman and Meyers have not nailed it down.

Back to the basement.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.