Construction project by Suffolk Construction

Credit: Isaiah Thompson/WGBH News

Top Donors In Boston Mayor's Race Are Often Close To City Business

November 2, 2017

The 2017 Boston mayoral race is about a number of key issues: affordability, schools, policing, race.

It’s also about money.

When it comes to the money that finances their campaigns, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and challenger City Councilor Tito Jackson stand on profoundly different ground: Walsh’s raised about $2.3 million in 2017 alone — more than nine times the funds raised by Jackson over the same time. Since becoming mayor, Walsh has raised close to $10 million in total.  

For both candidates, those donations come from a wide variety of donors, from retirees and homemakers to city employees to the principals of major area companies. 

Companies can’t directly contribute to politicians in Massachusetts.

But individuals do donate more than $200 are required to state their employer, and some of those companies stand out prominently among other donors — including companies that stood to benefit directly from decisions by city officials.

A WGBH News analysis of campaign contributions to both Walsh and Jackson over the past four years shows that among the companies whose employees have made the most, and/or most numerous donations are companies that have, during that time, had business with the city.

That’s true for both Walsh and Jackson — though more prominently so for incumbent Walsh.

Top Donors

CBRE New England: Based in Boston with offices throughout New England, CBRE bills itself as the “largest full-service commercial real estate services company in New England.”

Among private employers, CBRE tops the list of combined employee donations to Walsh: Its employees made roughly 40 individual donations in each of the last four years, totaling just over $50,000. 

The company has worked and continues to work for the Boston Planning and Redevelopment Authority (BPDA), serving as a marketing and leasing agent for BPDA properties and projects. CBRE is also engaged by the BPDA to help draw businesses to the city-owned Bolling Building, part of the city’s Dudley Square redevelopment project — which has struggled to draw and keep retailers. (That contact was first awarded in 2013, under former Mayor Thomas Menino.)

Goulston & Storrs: A major Boston-based law firm with a large real estate practice, Goulston & Storrs employees have made more than one hundred donations to Walsh since 2014, totaling about $37,000.

The company frequently represents development projects seeking approval, or relief, for example, from zoning restrictions, from the BPDA.

At least one such project, a major redevelopment plan for the Landmark Center in Fenway is currently under review by the BPDA.

Nixon Peabody, LLP: The Boston-based global law firm, whose employees donated a combined $38,000 to Walsh since 2014 made headlines last year when the Walsh administration hired one its lawyers, attorney Brian Kelly, a former federal prosecutor, to conduct an internal review after two of Walsh’s top aides were indicted on charges of attempted extortion.

The city has paid about $300,000 to the firm for outside legal counsel.

City officials confirm that Kelly continues to work for city departments to oversee policies and provide ethics trainings for city employees.

Feeney Brothers Excavation, LLC: A Dorchester-based contractor, Feeney Brothers comes in fourth among companies whose employees donated the most to Walsh — a combined $28,000 since 2014.

The company holds a contract for snow removal services for Boston — a contract it won through a 2014 bid, and which lasts through 2018. City data shows that the company has been paid about $4.7 million for snow removal since 2015.

Suffolk Construction: The mega-contractor behind much of the major development around the city, Suffolk Construction employees have donated just shy of $23,000 to Walsh since 2014.

The company does not contract directly with the city; but it has gotten substantial business from city-sanctioned development projects, including one prominent project being overseen, in part, by the BPDA: the estimated $200 million redevelopment of GE’s Boston headquarters.

Two of the above companies (as well as many more whose employees contributed smaller sums) also made substantial corporate donations to the MJW Chartiable Foundation, Walsh’s personal nonprofit charity, which raises money via an annual golf tournament and donates proceeds to various local causes.

Feeney Brothers contributed between $2,501 to $5,000 to the mayor’s foundation. Suffolk Construction contributed between $15,000 and $25,000 to foundation — just two among many larger contributors.

Donations to Walsh’s Challenger, City Councilor Tito Jackson, also show specific employers whose combined donations rise above the rest.

Roxbury-based developer Urban Core Development, whose employees donated a combined $4,000 to Jackson over four years; and The Community Builders, whose employees donated a combined $2,700 over that time.

Compliance versus Appearance

There is no restriction on a candidate or sitting politician’s accepting donations from individuals or groups of individuals who may have business before the city.

And while state ethics laws require disclosure in certain circumstances, the mere fact of a donation does not, generally, trigger disclosure rules. 

The city could adopt stricter rules for its own employees, but no such proposals have emerged.

Dan Weiner, a Senior Counsel at the Washington D.C.-based Brennan Center, and who specializes in issues around money in politics, says it’s not uncommon to see the donor rolls of local officials heavy with contributions from individuals with a financial stake in city business.

Local races tend to get less attention than national ones and draw from a much smaller pool of donor — “And therefore the donor pool ends up being composed of people who do business with the city," Weiner said.

Such donations are common and don’t by themselves imply favoritism. But even the potential for the appearance of something special treatment, he said, is problematic — even if the donations themselves are fully legal.

“We would probably look askance at a politician accepting a personal gift, like a Ferrari or a Rolex from someone who worked for a government contractor,” Weiner said. “If you had a politician saying, ‘Well, you know, that individual gave me a Rolex but that didn’t affect my decision,' we would all maybe roll our eyes a little bit.”

WGBH News reached out to both campaigns , as well as the Mayor’s Press Office, with questions about these findings and whether the fact of a donor’s employer having open business before the city ever affects whether that donation is accepted.

Walsh’s campaign responded to WGBH News’ findings and a series of questions with a statement reading (in whole): “The Walsh Campaign regularly reviews all campaign contributions and consults with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to ensure compliance with laws, regulations, and standards.”

In a separate statement, the Mayor’s Press Office said that “No donations, whether political or charitable, influence the Mayor’s decision-making on city business.”

City Councilor Tito Jackson’s mayoral campaign also responded to similar questions as well as WGBH News’ findings.

“This is why I am running for mayor,” Jackson wrote in a statement, taking aim at Walsh. “Mayor Walsh constantly pays lip-service to accountability and transparency and as we’ve seen on so many issues, has taken no action.”

Jackson pointed to Walsh’s pledge, when elected to his first term, to require public disclosure of lobbying of city officials (such disclosure is mandatory at the state level, but not in Boston).

Walsh has yet to institute such a reform, though he did, earlier this year, file a home rule petition to create new disclosure requirements.

Jackson also said that if elected, he would create an Ethics Commission, a pledge Walsh himself made during his first year in office.

Earlier this year, WGBH News reported that an “Ethics Committee” announced by Walsh in 2014 had initially convened, but then had quietly ceased activity: One appointee resigned after, he told WGBH News, he had been aware of no meetings or activity at all after an initial meeting. 

Clarification: This story has been updated to better reflect Mayor Marty Walsh's role with respect to the home rule petition on the public disclosure of lobbying city officials.

Isaiah Thompson is a staff reporter for WGBH News. Follow him on Twitter @isaiah_thompson.


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