In 1976, he was elected to the Middlesex County Commission, which ran courts, jails, hospitals and work programs. Then two years later, he was called to testify before a grand jury on a county commissioner’s office job-selling scandal.
Repeatedly pleading the Fifth Amendment, McLaughlin refused to answer questions about his relationship with his aides and his approval of two courthouse janitor jobs for relatives of high-ranking Boston gangsters, including the nephew of former Boston mafia boss Gennaro Angiulo. McLaughlin was never charged in the scandal, but his aide was eventually convicted.
In 1979, McLaughlin became executive director of the Somerville Housing Authority. He would hold the position, in addition to his role as county commissioner, until 1985.
The state Attorney General investigated him in 1980 for allegedly packing the Middlesex County ballot with straw candidates to increase his changes of winning. McLaughlin denied the allegations and the investigation was later dropped.
McLaughlin went on to direct the Lowell Housing Authority in 1986. A year later, authorities tape-recorded at least nine conversations between McLaughlin and reputed mobster John R. “Jackie” McDermott, a bookmaker whose phone was wire-tapped as part of a state police and FBI investigation into organized crime in Lowell.
McLaughlin, who was in the running for city manager at the time, allegedly asked McDermott to pressure city councilors into picking him for the job.
McLaughlin, passed over for the Lowell manager job, was never charged with wrongdoing for his involvement with McDermott. However, in 1990, Lowell Housing Authority board members accused him of politicizing the authority and bought out the remainder of his contract.
He came to Methuen as town manager in February 1990, and within weeks angry residents were calling for his resignation.
Within a month, town councilors had ordered a police investigation into his background and formed a subcommittee to explore a contract buyout. In 1991, he came within a single vote of being fired after councilors derided him as “power hungry” and a “ruthless politician.”