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A $50k bribe is small change in Boston’s real estate boom

Legal insider deals tip scales toward politically-connected developers

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
A $50k bribe is small change in Boston’s real estate boom
Neighborhood activists say construction firms and the politically connected lawyers and architects they work with have undue influence on the city's approval process. Banner Photo

The indictment of a former Boston Planning and Development Agency worker for receiving a $50,000 bribe from a developer has focused attention on the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal, the body that has final say over construction projects in Boston, but the case points to a much larger pattern of influence-peddling, most of which is legal under state law.

John Lynch, a longtime city employee, allegedly took payment from a real estate developer to secure an extension on a South Boston project. On Friday, the Boston Globe reported that the architect on the project was James Christopher, son of former Inspectional Services Division (ISD) Commissioner William “Buddy” Christopher, who is currently a special advisor to Mayor Martin Walsh. On Friday, the elder Christopher announced he is taking a leave of absence from his job while an investigator appointed by the mayor conducts a review of the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA). Over the weekend, ZBA member Graig Galvin tendered his resignation from the board without explanation.

William “Buddy” Christopher Photo: mayor’s office

William “Buddy” Christopher
Photo: mayor’s office

Outright bribery cases are rare in City Hall, but a web of politically-connected lawyers ushering projects through the city’s approval process, and the construction firms, architects and real estate developers who depend on them play an outsized role in the decision-making processes that govern what gets built in Boston.

In many cases, city officials who engage in insider dealing and exploit privileged relationships to benefit themselves, their friends and family members appear to do so while complying with state ethics laws.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Jon Ellertson, a member of Roxbury’s Highland Park Neighborhood Association, who has seen projects advanced by wired developers glide through approval processes at ISD and the ZBA despite fierce opposition from abutters and neighborhood activists.

“The process favors those who have connections,” he said. “People shrug their shoulders and say, ‘You can’t beat City Hall.’”

In Boston’s neighborhoods, where developers are reshaping the fabric of communities with multi-unit condo complexes and luxury apartment buildings, activists say the scales are tilted toward a handful of developers and their lawyers.

The BPDA (formerly Boston Redevelopment Authority), the ISD and the ZBA were established to create checks and balances on the real estate development process. While they were meant to serve as arbiters of disputes between developers and neighborhood residents, neighborhood activists across the city have long complained they are out-gunned by well-connected developers and lawyers who leverage relationships in City Hall to override local opposition to their projects.

Running roughshod in Roxbury

In Highland Park, abutters in 2015 challenged a project advanced by the late Joseph LaRosa, a developer who tore down a two-family home and ultimately built a six-unit apartment building on the lot, which neighbors argued was too small for the building. Roche-Christopher Architects, LLC the firm co-founded by William Christopher and helmed at the time by James Christopher, was listed on LaRosa’s project.

The project never went before the ZBA. The ISD ruled against the abutters and said LaRosa could move forward as-of-right, meaning without the need for review from the board.

The six-unit building, which overshadows the smaller two- and three-family homes on Cedar Street, now houses mainly student tenants.

James Christopher’s firm has been associated with other projects that have rolled over fierce neighborhood opposition in Roxbury, Dorchester and East Boston.

Before LaRosa’s association with Roche-Christopher and Associates, he used a law firm that employed Joseph Feaster ¾ who until 2004, was the chairman of the ZBA.  Feaster routinely recused himself from votes involving his then-client, but LaRosa rarely lost a fight against abutters.

The cozy relationships between city government and real estate developers has by no means been limited to small firms. In 2009, at a time when Suffolk Construction was working on multi-million-dollar city projects, including the new Boston Police Department headquarters and several school buildings, the firm hired then-Mayor Thomas Menino’s son, Thomas Menino Jr., for a 20-hour-a-week job as a “safety engineer.” Menino Jr. managed the Suffolk gig despite his full-time job as a police detective, which included 310 hours of overtime for the department in 2009, the Boston Herald reported.

The letter of the law

None of these arrangements were illegal. Neither James Christopher’s involvement with projects overseen by his father’s agency, nor Feaster’s representation of clients on matters before his board, nor Suffolk Construction’s hiring of the son of a mayor reputed to have an iron grip on construction projects.

Under the state’s ethics law, Chapter 268A, it clearly is illegal for municipal employees to receive bribes, gifts and gratuities. Municipal employees may not vote on, discuss or make decisions in matters in which they, their families or immediate relatives have an immediate interest. However, zoning board members who recuse themselves from votes on such matters, as did Feaster with his client, are within the law.

“In many cases, where not otherwise required to participate, a municipal employee may comply with the law by simply not participating in the particular matter in which she has a financial interest,” the state Ethics Commission’s website advises. “She need not give a reason for not participating.”

Beyond the dealing that appears to happen routinely at the ZBA, individuals and groups with a vested interest in real estate development exert influence in city government through campaign contributions to mayors and city councilors.

Some cities bar owners and employees of businesses that bid on municipal contracts from making political contributions, but Boston does not. As is the case with most U.S. cities, in Boston, land is the most valuable asset over which local government has control. Construction firms, building trade unions and real estate developers, along with the brokers, attorneys and architects who rely on their businesses together constitute the largest bloc of political contributors to the campaign accounts of Boston municipal officials.

In the last two weeks in August, Mayor Martin Walsh, who is not up for re-election this year, reported $3,716 in political contributions in his campaign account. Among the 11 contributors were three real estate developers, who together donated $2,025, three police officers, whose contributions totaled $1,075 and two city workers, who gave $25 and $50.

Even city councilors who are critical of the cozy relationship between developers and the ZBA benefit from the largesse of the construction industry. Michelle Wu, who last week criticized the city’s development process as “a system built on who is able to have the greatest input to a small number of decision-makers,” in the Boston Globe, is facing a competitive race for the at-large council seats.

During the last two-week reporting period in August, Wu received $7,510.90 in contributions, including $1,455 from individuals and entities in construction industry-related fields — $755 from real estate professionals, $500 from the Carpenters Local 328 Political Action Committee fund, $200 from an architect — and $500 from consultant Randi Lathrop, a former Boston Redevelopment Authority official whose areas of focus include development consulting, government relations, and urban planning and zoning, according to her website.

An impartial body?

With the current bribery controversy focusing attention on the ZBA, some are questioning the role that entities with a direct interest in real estate development play in selecting members of the board. In recent years, three of the seven ZBA members have been appointed by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, the Boston Society of Architects and the Boston Building Trades. Recent and current members have included an architect, two building trades leaders, two construction industry managers and the head of a construction industry advocacy group.

The preponderance of construction and development interests on the board, and the lack of neighborhood activists, has skewed the review process in favor of developers to the point where a $50,000 bribe seems hardly necessary.

For neighborhood activists, the cumulative effect of the privileged relationships between real estate industry professionals and the city officials who hold sway over development projects is an imbalance of power between developers and the neighbors who ultimately will live with what gets built on their block.

Lorraine Wheeler, a member of Roxbury Path Forward in the Moreland Street section of Roxbury, says her group has had little luck fighting against zoning relief for projects she says are too large for her tight-knit neighborhood.

“In the last couple of years, we haven’t been very successful,” she said. “Developers have been coming in with nine-unit buildings on lots that previously had one- or two-family homes. There’s nothing we can do to stop these projects from moving forward.”