High roller had plenty of tales to tell

Nick Rizzo was a good source, and he was apparently an even better – or should I say worse – embezzler?

In one way or another, he stole almost $4 million from the campaign accounts and friends of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas while Tsongas was running for president in 1992.

At the time of his 1993 indictment, the feds called Rizzo’s depredations “the largest case of campaign fraud in the history of this country.”

He ended up doing four years at Club Fed. His Bureau of Prisons number was 19827-038, and as of yesterday, the BOP hadn’t posted him as deceased, even though he died at the age of 84 in a fire at an old folks’ home in Andover March 8. He was trying to smoke a cigarette near an oxygen machine, and he set himself afire, just as he’d set his entire life ablaze decades earlier with his mega-embezzling.

He used the ill-gotten gains, the feds said, to pay off gambling debts – a very old story – as well as for his visits to “an adult entertainment center.”

Did I mention that his son-in-law was Lennie Degnan, a top aide to bent ex-Lawrence mayor Willie Lantigua? Degnan himself went to the can on a bribery rap, something about shaking down a garbage contractor for a free truck that el alcalde de Lawrencia then shipped to the Dominican Republic.

Nick Rizzo loved being a player, a name-dropper, a hob-nobber. He was tight, not just with Tsongas, for whom he raised millions, but also John Finnegan, the state auditor, and bent House speaker Tommy McGee. It was McGee who put Rizzo on the first board of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA), back in the days when the Bulgers were running wide open.

Every week, after the MCCA board meeting, I’d get a whispered call from Nick. Do you know what they did today? he would ask. They put hitman Johnny Martorano’s daughter on the payroll. They hired the daughter of Whitey Bulger’s girlfriend. They gave a job to one of Stevie Flemmi’s gangland buddies as a cashier – a cashier! – at the Under Common garage, and he just bought a Cadillac, even though he only makes eight bucks an hour, plus the hood got his brother a job, and he bought a Cadillac too!

It made for great copy, even though nothing ever changed for the better. The governor was a pathetic bust-out named M. Stanley Dukakis, and when the Bulgers told the Duke to jump, the only thing he asked was, “How high?”

Nick was a high roller. At the Lanam Club in Andover, he loved pointing out An Wang, the computer magnate who ate lunch there even more often than Nick. Rizzo also belonged to the Union Club on Park Street, as well as the Algonquin Club on Com Avenue. That was where he introduced me to Michael Kennedy of 14-year-old babysitter fame, or should I say infamy.

The buck-toothed Michael never talked much about his adventures in babysitting. But he did go on and on about how tough it was to work on Dukakis’ ’88 presidential campaign in New Mexico, when he always had to explain why Dukakis wanted to confiscate everyone’s guns.

I’d been thinking this week about those lunches at the Algonquin Club as the Democrats are fantasizing about trying to “nationalize” the midterm elections by running against the Second Amendment. I’m sure they’ll have as much luck with that as Michael Kennedy did in New Mexico 30 years ago.

Nick always told people he owned an auto-parts distributorship. This was in the day when the auto-parts discount chains were proliferating, and I always wondered how Nick was hanging in. It turns out, he wasn’t. He was dipping into the till, the Tsongas till, bigtime.

It would be easier to forgive Nick if his massive thefts hadn’t left Tsongas broke after he won the New Hampshire primary in 1992. Tsongas needed money to fend off a corrupt Arkansas governor by the name of Bill Clinton in the Florida primary, but Nick had stolen everything that wasn’t nailed down.

After a duplicitous multi-million-dollar advertising blitz against the broke Tsongas, Clinton won the Sunshine State and was off to the races… and Monica Lewinsky. So Nick played at least a small part in the nightmare that was this last quarter-century of Clinton sleaze.

That must have been a lot for Nick to answer for at the Pearly Gates. But St. Peter, just remember one thing: at least Nick tried to do something about the Bulgers when it wasn’t easy, when in fact it was dangerous.

Rest in peace, Nick.

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