Developers’ donations stir debate

Campaign contributions made to elected officials this year by developers of two disputed S. Huntington Avenue housing projects have become controversial after being spotlighted by local activists.

Developer Curtis Kemeny has just been approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) 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. Anthony Nader is seeking to develop 195 luxury units on a vacant lot at 105A S. Huntington Ave., a development called “The Serenity.”

A report issued by Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) chair Benjamin Day last month states that members of the development teams made almost $17,000 in campaign donations to various elected officials while City reviews were pending.

City Councilor Mike Ross returned $2,000 in donations, while other elected officials said it’s “offensive” to accuse them of corruption. Most of the donations were made to Mayor Thomas Menino.

“A lot of people think we’re accusing the candidates of corruption, which is not true,” Day told the Gazette. “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.”

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.

According to reports from the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF), the developers of each project made initial rounds of donations to local city councilors and state representatives. 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.

Nearly all the donations made by people associated with Kemeny’s project were made in the second half of September, after the project was submitted for and removed from a BRA board vote. Projects submitted to the BRA board for a vote have a high likelihood of being approved, as BRA staff only submits projects to the board when it considers the plans ready for approval.

Menino; state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez; and City Councilors Mike Ross, Matt O’Malley, John Connolly and Felix Arroyo received donations from Kemeny, Nader or 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 BRA.

“The BRA doesn’t respond to contribution questions,” BRA spokesperson Melina Schuler told the Gazette this week.

The Mayor’s Press Office did not respond to a Gazette request for comment by press time.

“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.

Bishoff did not address the timing of the latest donations.

The JPNC voted on Oct. 30 to not support Kemeny’s project. “The Serenity,” Nader’s project, is still under BRA advisement and has not yet been voted on by the JPNC.

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.

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, the law firm representing Kemeny.

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 did not reply to a Gazette request for comment.

Kemeny’s project has been the target of intense local opposition. “The Serenity” at 105A S. Huntington Ave. has received mixed feedback.

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.

Other members of JPNC who have made political donations this year include Andrea Howley ($25 to Menino), Edward “Red” Burrows ($433 to Arroyo and $200 to clerk magistrate and former city councilor Maura Hennigan) and Baron ($250 to Arroyo).

Members of the two city-appointed Impact Advisory Groups (IAG) for the two projects who have also made political donations this year include Patricia Flaherty ($25 to Menino), Lussier ($500 to Sánchez and $500 to Hennigan), Richard Rouse ($200 to Maura Doyle, Suffolk Supreme Judicial Court clerk; $200 to state Sen. John Hart; $150 to Lt. Gov. Tim Murray), Claudio Martinez ($250 to Menino) and Patrick Stapleton ($125 to state Rep. Robert DeLeo).

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