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Massachusetts politics: a comic opera in five acts? Massport, two governors, and a cast of appointees play lead roles in this intrigue

An aerial dogfight staged by Gilbert and Sullivan? A Machiavellian plot as retold by Peter Sellers? No, just Massachusetts politics in the last days of former Gov. Edward J. King - in a tale so bizarre and tangled that, if it were not so serious, would be hilarious.

It concerns Massport, the quasi-autonomous state authority that runs Logan International Airport and harbor-related properties in the Boston area, and whose directors are appointed for seven-year terms by the governor.

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It centers on the powerful $75,000-a-year post of Massport executive director - a position with many perks and lots of influence in local, national, and even international spheres.

It focuses on a cast of characters as long as your arm and as changeable as the harbor weather.

And in the past week, after many thought the final curtain had been lowered, it has taken several astonishing twists in its spiral of intrigue.

Here's the plot:

Prologue: Edward J. King was once the director of Massport. He was replaced in 1974, very much against his will, when then-Gov. Francis Sargent gained control of Massport's seven-member board of directors. The replacement was David W. Davis, whose more pro-community policies were markedly different from King's hard-nosed development plans.

One of Mr. Davis's strong supporters was Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic governor from 1975 to 1979. King, also a Democrat, unseated Mr. Dukakis in 1979 - but had to wait until the summer of 1982 to gain a four-member majority on the Massport board.

Act I: As the curtain rises in June 1982, Governor King has just appointed John W. Arata to the board, gaining a 4-to-3 majority against members loyal to the Dukakis-Davis party. King looks forward to the moment in October when the board will dismiss Davis and empanel a 14-member, blue-ribbon committee of Boston-area movers and shakers to search the nation for a suitable replacement.

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But enter, in September, a messenger, who explains to a stunned State House that King has just lost reelection in the Democratic primary. The man who won: his old foe, Michael Dukakis.

Act II: The board dismisses Davis on Oct. 15. The search committee winnows its massive list down to six. The board, as per agreement, then adds two names of its own: William T. Hogan, member of King's cabinet, and state Rep. Louis R. Nickinello, chairman of the House transportation committee. Both are King loyalists.

Much of this act is taken up with closed-door sessions of the search committee. Leaks, however, suggest that the committee has no interest whatsoever in Representative Nickinello - and that Governor King will award Mr. Hogan with a judgeship, taking him out of the Massport running. The search committee's recommendation, when it comes, is unanimous: Evelyn Murphy, the widely respected former secretary of the environment under Governor Dukakis.

Act III: The board, however, is not bound by the recommendation of the search committee. Rumors abound of tremendous pressure - from King and from state legislative leaders - to vote in Representative Nickinello.

The board begins meeting to make its decision on Dec. 30. Finally, after a turbulent meeting Jan. 4, it decides, voting 4 to 3 for Nickinello. The search committee and Governor-elect Dukakis erupt with cries of ''charade,'' but the vote is apparently final: months of hard work by the search committee has been shot down by what critics say was a predetermined plan to vote in Nickinello.

Act IV: But wait! Suddenly, early on Jan. 5, two of King's board members - businessman David S. Paresky and union official William F. Lyden - resign. With less than 24 hours left of his term of office, King appoints two refills: his own transportation secretary, James F. Carlin, and (to fulfill the requirement that one board member must represent union interests) Teamster official Joseph Laffey.

Then, at the end of the afternoon, King aides discover the awful truth: the newly constituted board, which legally must have no more than four members of one party, has five Democrats. Why the problem? Because, quietly last summer, one of the Dukakis--Davis board members, Boston city official John A. Vitagliano , changed his registration from independent to Democrat.

Did he do it on purpose, to prepare for this moment? Does that change invalidate every action of the Massport board since then - including its decision to fire Davis? Nobody knows, and the curtain closes on appalling confusion.

Act V: Day dawns Jan. 6. Dukakis is to take office at noon. With four hours left:

* Both Mr. Carlin and Mr. Laffey, King's 24-hour-old appointees, resign.

* King board member E. Paul Robsham, a Democrat, changes his voter registration to Republican.

* King reappoints Laffey.

But King still needs another Republican. Enter, innocently, King's military adviser, Eric Jostrum. He arrives in full naval uniform at 9:30 a.m. to escort the exiting governor ceremoniously down the State House steps. He is a Republican. At 10:30 a.m. he is sworn in as a board member.

Finished? Hardly. In the last, deft piece of irony, Dukakis takes office at noon - and at 5:15 p.m. removes both Eric Jostrum and Laffey. How can he do that? By using an obscure 1964 state statute that gives the governor the power to remove any gubernatorial appointee within 15 days - even though, during those 15 days, the governorship has changed hands.

Epilogue: Monday, Jan. 10. Nickinello takes office as executive director of Massport. The Massport board has five members - although rumors abound that both Laffey and Jostrum will file suit to retain their positions.

The future? Even insiders, who admit to being a little punchy by this time, don't dare speculate. By midweek, some feel, Dukakis may be free to appoint two more board members. The new board could remove Nickinello. Then they could appoint Evelyn Murphy. Or maybe, by a kind of poetic justice, they could even reappoint David W. Davis.

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