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More fallout from ZBA bribe case

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Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
More fallout from ZBA bribe case
Former BPDA staff member John Lynch and architect James Christopher at a ZBA hearing. Image from Youtube video

Last week, a former Boston Planning and Development Agency official pled guilty to accepting a $50,000 bribe from a developer to influence a Zoning Board of Appeal vote on a real estate project, drawing scrutiny to the sometimes cozy relationships between city officials and players in the real estate development field.

ZBA board member Craig Galvin, a real estate broker, resigned his post. Former Inspectional Services Department Commissioner William “Buddy” Christopher took a leave of absence from his role as special advisor to Mayor Martin Walsh while Walsh conducts an independent review of the ZBA and how it functions.

The growing fallout from the bribery case has put a laser focus on corruption in the city’s oversight of real estate development, with Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell calling for the creation of an independent inspector general position to investigate public corruption, waste and mismanagement.

In another action, Walsh issued an executive order last week barring city employees and their immediate family members from participating in any marijuana business that is seeking or intending to seek approval from the City of Boston.

Another ZBA member who resigned, Bruce Bickerstaff, is a co-owner in a marijuana business, Silver Therapeutics. Bickerstaff had recused himself from votes on variances sought by marijuana firms, as did former ZBA member Marie St. Fleur, who is chief operating offer of Union Twist, a company that operates a Framingham marijuana dispensary.

At the city’s Zoning Commission, an appointed body charged with maintaining and updating the city’s zoning code, member Joanne Keith voted last year on changes to the code regulating marijuana establishments. Keith is listed as a co-owner of Rooted in Roxbury, a marijuana business established in March that is seeking to open at 195 Dudley Street, a site that lies about 300 feet from the Boston Day and Evening Academy, a public charter high school.

Walsh’s new executive order on marijuana targets members of boards, including the ZBA, the Boston Licensing Board, the Boston Public Health Commission, the Zoning Commission and the Boston Planning and Development Agency, or their immediate family members.

A double standard?

While Walsh’s prohibition on cannabis business participation by city officials may limit the insider dealing in that industry, the mayor has issued no such order for city officials with ownership or ties to real estate.

Cannabis business variances make up only a small fraction of ZBA cases. The vast majority of cases relate to real estate development. Businesses and individuals with ties to real estate development also constitute one of the most powerful political blocs in city government — not in terms of their share of the city’s population, but in their largesse. Many max out on the state’s campaign contribution limit of $1,000 and bundle contributions, fattening the accounts of the mayor and city councilors. In the first two weeks of April this year, real estate developers and their family members, brokers and building trades workers made donations to Walsh’s campaign account totaling $50,931 — 26 percent of the $194,051 raised in that period.

Beyond taking the $50,000 bribe, the former BPDA official, John Lynch, engaged in a series of real estate transactions which included obtaining waivers from the ZBA for a Dorchester duplex he built and then sold for a combined $1.5 million.

None of Lynch’s transactions appear illegal, and the Banner found no evidence of neighborhood opposition to the duplex project. Representatives from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services spoke in favor of the project, and William Christopher’s son James served as Lynch’s architect and sat beside him during the board meeting. The proceedings provided a glimpse into often tangled relationships between the real estate development industry and City Hall.

During the hearing, which can be viewed on the city’s video feed, Galvin, the ZBA member who has now resigned, made a motion to approve the development project. His firm later served as listing agent for the project.

On his real estate firm’s website, Galvin touts his team’s ability to shepherd projects through the city’s permitting process.

“…our team members are subject-matter experts who can provide key insights and support in meeting with the community, abutters, the Zoning Board of Appeals(sic), the BRA, and other stakeholders,” the website reads.

IG office proposed

In the wake of Lynch’s guilty plea last week, City Council President Andrea Campbell called for the creation of an independent inspector general’s office for the City of Boston. Under Campbell’s proposal, the position would be filled by vote of a five-to-seven-member advisory board that would include members appointed by the mayor, the City Council’s president and Ways and Means Committee chair and two community members with experience in investigations, financial analysis, auditing, criminal law or public administration.

Campbell is calling for the inspector general to serve a five-year term and to have subpoena power, and for the IG office’s budget to have a floor to ensure that political leaders cannot strip the office of the resources it needs to conduct investigations.

“Bostonians deserve a City government that is free of corruption and waste, grounded in transparency, and accountable to the people,” Campbell said in a statement. “Rather than bringing in costly outside counsel to address scandals as they arise, Boston needs an Inspector General to bring permanent, proactive, independent oversight of Boston’s city government.”

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