Politics as Unusual: Connolly’s law firm and its eviction case

Over the past several months and particularly since the preliminary election, we’ve heard countless tales about the company and characters surrounding state rep. and mayoral hopeful Marty Walsh. The broad stroke is that he rolls with greedy union hacks and old-timers, Dot Ave. ruffians and their ilk. As for his opponent, City Councilor-At-Large John Connolly, the dailies tell us he breaks bread with young professional parents, business leaders and other ostensibly respectable citizens. For myriad reasons, for better or worse, those are their popular public profiles.

With less than two weeks left before the big dance, however, that narrative of guilt or innocence by mere association seems to be shifting—at least for Connolly. While still quite the mom magnet, he was recently shown to have significant support among conservatives; a Boston Globe article on Saturday, “For Republicans, Connolly is the Democrat of choice,” traced his money trail to allies of everyone from Mitt Romney to Karl Rove. Such developments may shock some, his being a liberal legacy and all. But considering the underreported side of his professional past, the councilor’s attractiveness to bloodsucking Republicans is fitting.

As has been vaguely reported, Connolly, in addition to working as a teacher, served as a lawyer at the hot-shot corporate firm Ropes & Gray, then later as a part-time partner at the much smaller Schofield Campbell & Connolly from April 2007 until October of last year. At last Tuesday’s debate, he was asked about his time as an attorney and whether he sued tenants on behalf of landlords; after detouring through an education spiel, the councilor spoke of the pro bono work done by his firm, and assured he hadn’t personally litigated evictions. “I didn’t do that type of practice,” said Connolly, who conceded that his former “partners have represented landlords in disputes.” Asked how he felt about his firm getting involved with such proceedings, the councilor added, “It all goes to the nature of these disputes.”

In one such dispute starting in 2007, Schofield Campbell & Connolly represented a company called J.M. Realty Management, which was embroiled in a disagreement with a tenant. When J.M. moved to increase rent for its building at 760 Cummins Highway in Mattapan, Tim Schofield, a fellow Boston College Law grad and partner of Connolly’s, pursued angry occupants in court. According to court documents, one tenant who was paying $1,100 a month there rejected a $50 hike on the basis of J.M.’s alleged negligence to tend to problems ranging from “inadequate hot water” and “sewage back up” to “roaches in common areas” and “sewer bugs in [the] bathroom.” Hired to help force the increase, Schofield initiated eviction proceedings in late 2007, serving the tenant with a notice to quit the premises one week before Christmas.

Residents at that property were not alone in their complaints against J.M. Realty and an affiliated company called the Mayo Group. With assistance from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and the Jamaica Plain nonprofit City Life/Vida Urbana (disclosure: I am a consultant to City Life on social media matters), in June 2007, people facing similar scenarios in 20 J.M. buildings around Boston formed a coalition called On The Move Tenant Association to level charges and take action. Their efforts illuminated the aforementioned bad conditions and fostered relief for some families.

Dealing an even bigger blow to J.M., though, was Commonwealth Attorney General Martha Coakley. In 2010, her office successfully indicted J.M. Realty and its president, John McGrail, for “failing to provide pay records, evading unemployment insurance payments,” and “improper removal and disposal of asbestos.” In 2011, McGrail pled guilty to all of the above, and was placed on three years probation, plus was forced to pay $200,000 in fines.

Schofield did not represent J.M. in aforementioned criminal proceedings. But if there was ever any question regarding how McGrail managed properties during the time he was represented by Schofield Campbell & Connolly, the Coakley case offers some possible answers. According to a press release issued by the AG’s office: “[B]etween 2005 and 2007, McGrail … instructed his employees to perform demolition and renovation services at three different Mayo Group properties in Lynn, Boston, and Worcester, that had asbestos containing materials…. [The] materials were transferred to a warehouse in South Boston, and thereafter asbestos debris was distributed in dumpsters at various [McGrail] properties around Boston for regular trash disposal.”

For a number of reasons, some Boston poll watchers and politicos have been fuming over the lack of critical reporting on Connolly’s legal career. Their blog and Twitter screeds are warranted; though few would deny that the councilor’s tenure teaching poor and at-risk students was transformative, the fact is that he left that profession to attend law school, and later partnered with the kind of attorneys who represent people like McGrail, who just this month, under the South Boston office address for J.M. Realty, contributed $500 to Connolly’s campaign.

McGrail has funded Walsh, Connolly, and other pols in the past—he gave $2,000 to the former between 2002 and 2007 (from an address in Walsh’s district), $500 to the latter in 2005, $2,000 to Mayor Tom Menino through the years, and $500 apiece to Hyde Park Councilor Rob Consalvo and District Attorney Dan Conley during this year’s mayoral prelim. But in the current contest, as of Oct. 18, McGrail is behind Connolly.

Asked for comment, Connolly’s campaign referred questions to Tim Schofield, Connolly’s former partner. Schofield confirmed what has already been said—that the councilor had absolutely no involvement with such cases, and that they more or less ran separate practices with shared offices and letterhead. But considering that Boston still has a veritable housing crisis underway, the councilor’s connection with J.M. Realty, past and present, seems like it should weigh in along with his experience in the classroom and at City Hall—especially if Walsh’s credibility is handcuffed to anyone who ever joined a labor union.

A former Boston Phoenix staff writer, Chris Faraone is now contributing editor at DigBoston.

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