Developers’ donations stir debate; JPNC chair’s role questioned

October 31, 2012
By

The head of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) has stirred controversy—including about his own leadership—by issuing a report about campaign contributions made to elected officials this year by developers of two disputed S. Huntington Avenue housing projects.

As a result of the report issued by Benjamin Day earlier this month, City Councilor Mike Ross returned $2,000 in donations, while other elected officials said it’s “offensive” to accuse them of corruption. And the JPNC yesterday debated Day’s actions, with one member resigning in protest and others calling for new ethics guidelines.

Day has said he issued the report as a private citizen without mentioning his JPNC leadership position, and also emphasized that he was not accusing officials of corruption, though he continued to imply some kind of impropriety.

“A lot of people think we’re accusing the candidates of corruption, which is not true,” Day told the Gazette this week. “We have no evidence that the money has influenced the process. But the fact that the money is there really paints the process.”

“The insinuation is insulting and offensive,” City Councilor Felix Arroyo, one of the recipients of the donations, told the Gazette. “My constituents should rest assured that when I make a decision on this matter or any other matter, donations don’t play a role.”

“The chair was independently acting in secret, not in consultation of the council, embarrassing elected officials,” JPNC member David Baron said at last night’s JPNC meeting. “Who on the council makes press releases in their own names? That’s not traditionally the way we’ve done things on the council.”

“It is unusual to hold the chair of a lowly neighborhood council to such a standard,” Day responded at the meeting. “Everyone I spoke to, I made it clear that it was my own personal thing.”

Day issued the report with the help of some other JPNC members and Kevin Moloney of the Jamaica Pond Association, who is also on a City advisory group for the housing projects. The full JPNC was not aware of Day and others working on the report. The JPNC had not yet voted on either project and had a pending vote on one of them.

Day issued the report to various news organizations, including the Gazette. Various outlets, including the Boston Herald, quickly published the report and a press release almost verbatim. The Gazette did not, choosing instead to investigate its claims and get comment from everyone involved before publishing an article.

Francesca Fordiani, a nine-year JPNC member, resigned Oct. 29 over the way Day created and issued the report and the resulting impact on the JPNC’s reputation.

“This would be damaging enough to the Council if it was done only by a handful of members, but for the Chair himself to act with this reckless disregard for the Council and its open, public, deliberative process is simply bad faith,” Fordiani wrote in a resignation letter.

Day has raised eyebrows before with his private activism while serving as JPNC chair. Last year, he joined in a public protest at the opening of the new Whole Foods Market in Hyde Square while the council was still attempting to create a neighborhoods benefits agreement with the grocer.

According to reports from the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF), the developers of each project made initial rounds of donations to city councilors and state representatives in whose districts the developments would take place. Later, the developers’ attorneys and consultants made large bundled campaign donations to Menino’s campaign committee. At the time the donations were being made, the community was engaged in lively debate over the merits of both projects.

Mayor Thomas Menino; state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez; and City Councilors Mike Ross, Matt O’Malley, John Connolly and Felix Arroyo received donations from developers Curtis Kemeny and Anthony Nader and staffers, lawyers and consultants working for them.

Menino would be the only official who received contributions with any direct review authority over the outcome of either project, through influence at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).

“Obviously, there’s no problem in giving to candidates. It’s having these donations go through while their applications are still pending that’s the problem,” Day told the Gazette last week. “

“To focus on Mr. Kemeny’s $500 contribution to the mayor this year, after years of support, tries to twist the story and ignore how critical this development is to the Home for Little Wanderers, which was trying to be respectful of the neighborhood in choosing an experienced, committed residential developer rather than selling it off to local institutions hungry for expansion,” Kemeny spokesperson Janey Bishoff told the Gazette.

Kemeny’s Boston Residential Group plans to create 196 units of luxury apartments, mostly one-bedrooms, on the current site of the Home for Little Wanderers at 161 S. Huntington Ave. Nader’s Cedar Valley Development is seeking to develop 195 luxury units on a vacant lot next to the North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB) at 105A S. Huntington Ave., a development called “The Serenity.”

The JPNC voted last night to not support Kemeny’s project.

While Day focused on the timing of the recent donations, both developers also have regularly contributed to local candidates in the past.

According to the OCPF website, Kemeny has made donations to Menino almost every year since 2005. Nader has made frequent campaign contributions to various candidates since 2004. Employees of Nixon Peabody and Goulston & Storrs, attorneys for the two developments, have made contributions to Menino and other candidates since 2004.

This year, Day made a campaign contribution of his own to Jass Stewart, a candidate for Brockton City Council. Previously, he contributed to Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, mayoral candidate Sam Yoon and Gov. Deval Patrick, among others.

Ross’s campaign treasurer Susanne Lavoie told the Gazette that the refund check for the $2,000 donated to the campaign from Nader and his family was sent last week, at Ross’s request.

“Our policy is that we do not accept campaign contributions from individuals who are currently actively going through the permitting process,” she said. “We [Ross’s campaign office] accepted those donations without any knowledge of the permitting process.”

“[Councilor Ross] asked me to return the donations, which I did,” she added.

Sánchez said that he is “saddened that the leadership of the neighborhood council has chosen to imply what they’re implying.”

“No donation that is made to me is made from anything else except as an indication of support. I’ve dedicated my life in supporting affordable housing and I stand by my record,” he said. “I’m saddened that the leadership of the council has chosen to handle itself in this way.”

“I haven’t even gone on the record [stating a position] about either of these development projects,” he added, saying the JPNC should address more pressing concerns such as neighborhood shootings.

Arroyo and O’Malley both told the Gazette that the suggestion of inappropriate behavior was “offensive.”

“I received $150 from [Kemeny attorney] Larry DiCara, whom I’ve known since I was a junior at Boston Latin School. He is a resident of Jamaica Plain, a neighbor and a friend,” O’Malley told the Gazette this week. “It’s offensive and completely wrong to suggest that there’s anything shady going on.”

DiCara works at Nixon Peabody, Kemeny’s law firm.

O’Malley added that the two proposed projects are in fact located in Ross’s district, not his own, but that he is invested in the outcome as “it will affect all of Jamaica Plain.”

“As a firm, we are allowed to be politically active,” said Brian Moynihan, a spokesperson for Nixon Peabody, the attorneys for Kemeny’s development.

Menino’s campaign, Connolly, Nader and DiCara all were not immediately available for comment.

Kemeny’s project has been the target of intense local opposition. Community feedback for “The Serenity” at 105A S. Huntington Ave. has been more favorable, though not unanimous.