Needing community support, some developers pay for it
By Mark Arsenault and Andrew Ryan
17 September 2016
A builder who
wanted to expand a South End brownstone made a gift to the adjacent St.
John the Baptist Hellenic Orthodox Church.
The proposition reads like a payoff.
“We would like to offer your nonprofit $10,000 a year for 20 years for
your support at the ZBA next Tuesday,” an advertising firm proposed to
a West End neighborhood group earlier this year, in an e-mail obtained
by the Globe.
In South Boston, two civic associations in July negotiated with a
developer over the cost of their support. They wanted $5,000 each, but
settled for $2,500.
And in the South End, a church abruptly withdrew its letter of
opposition to a residential project shortly before receiving $50,000
from the developer.
In Boston, where the Zoning Board of Appeal often gives great weight to
neighborhood sentiment, community support has become a crucial
commodity that can sometimes be bought almost as easily as lumber or
drywall, according to an extensive Globe review of city records,
e-mails, and court documents.
The system was laid bare in a Suffolk Superior courtroom this summer in
a defamation lawsuit. At the trial, real estate agent Joyce Lebedew
alleged that Brian R. Mahoney, longtime leader of an influential civic
association, strong-arms developers for money.
“It is known in South Boston,” Lebedew said under oath, “that if you
don’t pay Brian Mahoney cash in an envelope, then your job gets
Mahoney, an officer of the St. Vincent Lower End Neighborhood
Association, strongly denied taking cash from developers and told the
Globe that “not one iota of evidence” presented in court supports the
But Mahoney, who wields significant influence over projects in Boston’s
hottest real estate market, acknowledged soliciting donations from
developers who have come to his civic group looking for support — money
for a playground, ball field, youth sports, and two charities not
registered with the state that list their address as his home.
“I collect money, OK?” Mahoney told the Globe, describing payments as
“community benefits.” On the witness stand, Mahoney said he receives
the donations “by virtue of the fact that I’m moderating the
[neighborhood association] meetings.”
Restrictive zoning rules
The pressure for developers to pay is a byproduct of Boston’s tortuous
zoning rules, under which almost nothing can be built without a vote
from the Zoning Board of Appeal. The seven-member board rules on
projects that do not comply with existing zoning — which is largely
restrictive by design, so that City Hall has the final say and
neighbors and others can have input.
Large projects, with more than 15 units or 20,000 square feet, must
also be approved by the board of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
As part of the review process, city officials direct developers to
present their plans to neighborhood associations, and the ZBA
frequently cites the opinions of civic groups in deciding whether a
project gets its permits or dies on the drawing board.
The exchange of money in the process, often without disclosure to
Zoning Board members, raises questions about the motivations of
neighbors and the impartiality of some of the local groups City Hall
relies on as barometers of neighborhood sentiment.
“It is a certain kind of quid pro quo because if you don’t donate, you
know, you’re going to be the bad guy,” said Cedarwood Development
cofounder David Winick, who said he is regularly asked for donations,
and makes them. “They can say what they want — that there are no
repercussions if you don’t — but there certainly is.”
Winick said he gives checks not cash and has not seen evidence of civic leaders enriching themselves personally.
The Walsh administration has looked to expand the community review
process for development beyond civic groups. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has
increased the emphasis on meetings with abutters, and the
administration is studying other approaches, such as establishing
online town halls for residents who cannot spare a night away from home
or work for a public meeting.
One blunt-edged negotiation over price played out over e-mail in July about a project due to come before the BRA.
Gary Murad is president of the St. Vincent Lower End Neighborhood
Association, which advocates for the interests of a swath of South
Boston north of West Broadway.
Murad wrote to City Hall to announce a deal with developer Joseph
Hassell, who had proposed a five-story residential building at 55 W.
Fifth St., according to an e-mail exchange acquired by the Globe in a
public records request.
Murad, who included Hassell on the e-mail, said, “we agreed, in
recognition of our support” to a $25,000 payment from the developer, of
which $15,000 would go to a local park and $5,000 each to the St.
Vincent organization and the Cityside Neighborhood Association.
Less than an hour later, Hassell objected, writing that he had never
agreed to a $25,000 payment. He was thinking of something more like
“Also just so you are aware several people have huge issues with the
civic associations collecting money from developers and have expressed
concern,” Hassell wrote to Murad and city officials, not identifying
who was concerned.
Murad shot back: “I welcome hearing who has issues with our 501c4
receiving money,” a reference to the civic organization’s nonprofit tax
Despite his pique over Murad “sending out false e-mails,” Hassell was
still in a mood to deal: “I am sure we can straighten this out and come
to an agreement.”
Two days later, Murad shared a new deal with the Boston Redevelopment
Authority: a $15,000 payment from Hassell, with the civic associations
getting $2,500 each. The BRA blessed the payments and included them in
its agreement with the developer.
Hassell, reached by telephone, hung up immediately when a Globe
reporter identified himself. Noreen Rosher, head of the Cityside
organization, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
In an interview, Murad said it was the first time he had negotiated a
direct payment from a developer to the neighborhood association, an
assertion confirmed when St. Vincent made its financial books available
to the Globe.
The ledger showed a shoestring organization subsisting on $10 annual
membership dues that spent its scant resources to buy flowers and trash
bags for a spring cleanup. Murad, Mahoney, and other leaders are unpaid
The idea to solicit direct donations from developers came from another civic association, which Murad declined to identify.
“No one called me and said you can’t do that,” Murad said. “If someone
[from the BRA or elsewhere] would have said, ‘Dude you can’t do that,’
I would have been like, ‘OK. I didn’t know.’ ”
Michael Christopher, deputy director of development review for the
Boston Redevelopment Authority, said, “It is not uncommon for a civic
association to receive funds from a developer.” The financial
agreements are delineated in public documents approved by the BRA
board, Christopher said, ensuring deals for large projects are at least
But in a city awash in billions of dollars in development, money can
influence support for smaller projects that don’t get BRA scrutiny. And
unless city officials are notified of secret side deals, they have no
way to know whether money has changed hands or how to judge the
motivations of neighbors and community groups weighing in on
Brian R. Mahoney, shown at a South Boston community meeting in 2000,
says he has sought support from developers for his civic group, the St.
Vincent Lower End Neighborhood Association, but he denies ever
receiving cash payments. Mattthew J. Lee Globe Staff file
Direct payments denied
Stephen Fox, chairman of the South End Forum, an umbrella group that
includes 17 civic and business associations in the South End, said that
while there have been occasional rumors about money or perks for
abutters, he has never — in his 25 years of neighborhood activism —
heard of a developer cutting checks directly to civic associations.
“Civic associations typically are the community voice for the
appropriateness of a project,” Fox said. “If they are seen to be
receiving money directly from the developer, then there is the
appearance of influence and the opportunity for abuse.”
In South Boston, Mahoney raises money from developers while also
moderating the St. Vincent association’s public meetings, at which
developers present their building plans for the neighborhood’s review.
“There is no quid pro quo,” Mahoney said, though he acknowledged in an
interview there could be a downside for developers who refuse to donate.
“Well, I suppose on a future project there may be some type of
consequence,” Mahoney said, laying out a hypothetical in which a
developer gets neighborhood support for variances, but then declines to
donate to local causes.
What happens if that developer wants to do another project? “Somebody
might say . . . why should the community support yet another? You know,
to me, that’s how it goes,’’ Mahoney said. “If you want to say that’s a
shakedown or pressure — I don’t know.”
A South Boston native, Mahoney served in the Army in the late 1960s and
earned the Korean Defense Service Medal, according to Army records.
He joined the Boston Police Department in 1983 but was fired in 1991
for conduct unbecoming an officer. He has since worked as a sexton and
janitor at St. Vincent de Paul Parish and written for local newspapers,
including South Boston Today, a weekly at which he is editor in chief.
In 2013, Southie builder Gregg Donovan filed suit against Mahoney and
two other defendants from South Boston Today: publisher John Ciccone
and managing editor Brian P. Wallace, a former state representative.
The suit accused the paper of publishing falsehoods about Donovan’s
business, such as a claim in a Mahoney column that Donovan was working
on a development project without permits.
Donovan won $162,500 in damages when the defamation case came to trial
this past July. Mahoney said the defendants are filing an appeal.
A subtext of the trial was the allegation that South Boston Today was
used as a weapon to foment neighborhood opposition and Mahoney’s
articles were intended to pressure Donovan to pay tribute to Mahoney,
which he said he never did. Mahoney rejected that accusation.
“This is a free speech issue,” Mahoney told the Globe. “I wrote something, and I’m being crucified for it.”
Lebedew, who is Donovan’s real estate agent, testified that she
upbraided Mahoney for going after Donovan in his columns, branding him
an aggressive developer “being allowed to build without a public
meeting, a Zoning Board hearing, [and] no community input into his new
“I said, ‘It’s—it’s bullying, is what it is,’ ” Lebedew said at trial,
in an account of their conversation. “And he said that, ‘He’s treated
no different, Joyce, than the others; he can pay or he can pay.’ ”
Not true, Mahoney said.
“The conversation as she related didn’t happen that way,” he testified.
Lebedew did not respond to phone and e-mail messages from the Globe.
Mahoney said the checks he collects are made out not to him, but to the
various local causes for which he raises money. He said he had sole
control over two association bank accounts with combined balances of
“I ask people, ah, developers, for donations for specific issues,” he testified.
The Globe found apparent inconsistencies in some of Mahoney’s
testimony. He said a representative from Cedarwood Development came to
his house with a $1,000 check for the most recent St. Patrick’s Day
parade. Parade organizers say they have no record of the donation.
The developer, David C. Matteo, told the Globe he did not recall making the donation but was not certain.
In an interview, Mahoney said the money could have been for another of
his fund-raising efforts, Veterans Express II, a program that takes
veterans on trips to Washington. The organization, which lists its
address as Mahoney’s South Boston home, is not registered with the
state and opened its own charitable bank account only after inquiries
from the Globe.
Mahoney provided the Globe a year of bank records that showed a high
balance of $57,000 and nearly 100 checks from donors that included at
least $34,400 from developers and other businesses that look to civic
associations for support.
The records offered only a few details about expenses.
Another organization headquartered at Mahoney’s home is “Friends of
Evans Field,” which is not a state registered charity. Records show
Mahoney in 2006 donated $10,000 for upkeep of the South Boston ball
field, though under oath he testified he gave $13,000.
Evans Field is named for the deceased brother of Police Commissioner
William B. Evans. The commissioner told the Globe he was unaware of the
organization “Friends of Evans Field” or any fund-raising efforts.
Evans added through a spokesman that Mahoney was “very supportive of
youth sports in South Boston and involved in keeping sports fields well
South Boston Little League officials said two developers have made donations at Mahoney’s behest in recent memory.
Paul Adamson, a developer who owns Shenannigans pub in the St.
Vincent’s swath of South Boston, said Mahoney does not sell the
organization’s support. “Brian actually cares what happens in the
neighborhood,” he said. “If he sees something wrong, he goes against it
no matter how strong they are.”
Another developer, Doug George, recalled meeting with Mahoney and Murad
to discuss a project on West Broadway. “Any suggestion they might have
been looking for a favor or money is far from the truth,” said George,
who has agreed to donate $10,000 to the city’s Fund for Parks to
support a nearby playground.
Church got donation
In the city’s South End, a major addition to a brownstone elicited a
letter of opposition from a neighbor, St. John the Baptist Hellenic
Orthodox Church . The letter briefly became an issue at a ZBA hearing
in November 2014, until a representative from Walsh’s office announced
that the developer had “done a lot of work with the church to get
everybody on board” and St. John’s had just withdrawn its opposition.
The developer, Thomas Calus, confirmed to the Globe that he donated
$50,000 to the church to help fix the roof and make other repairs. The
donation, Calus said, was not a condition of St John’s dropping its
“It was a gesture for the church and the community,” said Calus. “We felt it was the right thing to do.”
The church did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Another example could be found this past spring in the city’s West End,
where outdoor advertising company Media Vision of Winthrop went hunting
for support for its proposal for a digital billboard at 55-59 Causeway,
which was heading to votes before city boards.
“I just tried to get a community group in that area that would find [a
financial agreement] the most beneficial,” Jonathan Serra, the
company’s president, said in a phone interview. “You always try to make
a good impact on the community. Not everybody loves a billboard.”
In April, Media Vision lawyer Sean T. O’Donovan pitched the project to
the West End Civic Association . He wrote that Media Vision cares about
the city, “and as such, when the time is right want to pledge
$5,000-$10,000 a year” toward a pedestrian path in the neighborhood “or
to some other community benefit as your group sees fit,” according to
The civic association eventually came to oppose the project over
concerns that billboards could proliferate and clutter the neighborhood.
Serra personally e-mailed a second group, the West End Community
Center, with an offer of $200,000 over 20 years in exchange for support
at the ZBA, according to a copy of the e-mail. The center did not take
the offer because the group did not want to get involved in politics,
according to one of the nonprofit’s officers.
The company had better luck with a third organization, the West End
Museum, which praised the billboard in a glowing June 6 letter to the
city Licensing Board. Museum director Susan A. Hanson also acknowledged
that if the billboard was built, “Media Vision will provide the museum
with a steady source of income for fifteen years.”
In an interview, Hanson said the arrangement was no different than signing a sponsor.
“I thought it was a pretty straight up deal,” Hanson said. “Nonprofits have to get their money from somewhere.”
The billboard lost a ZBA vote after facing opposition from the mayor’s
office, and the project died in June along with the pledge of financial
support for the museum.
Ken Smith, president of the Old Dover Neighborhood Association in the
South End, said the associations bring expertise to the development
“We know the traffic,” he said. “We know the parking situation. We know
what it’s like to live here today and we have a good perspective of
what will fit here.”
It’s a perspective developer Bruce Daniel said he appreciates.
“We think they’re a pain in the ass most of the time, but, for the most
part, they have the best interest of the neighborhood at heart,” he
said, of the groups. “I build something they’re going to have to live
with. I think they should have some say in the process.”
Daniel, who has done work in South Boston, recalled that Mahoney hit
him up for money toward fixing the roof at St. Vincent de Paul Parish,
perhaps 10 years ago.
Yes, he said, he donated: “It’s a cost of doing business.”
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