There's an old adage in journalism, "follow the money."
This adage is an apt strategy when trying to make sense of the lucrative world of real estate in Boston. This was on full display last week, when the community opposition to a luxury apartment building at 161 South Huntington Avenue in Jamaica Plain uncovered campaign contributions from the developers to Mayor Tom Menino, and to various other state and local officials, in the run-up to the approval of the project by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. This put some in the uncomfortable position of explaining both the legality of the donations and the impartiality of their judgement. Councilor Mike Ross, among those who received contributions, went to far as to promise to return the money to maintain his impartiality.
If you were surprised to see such a correlation between campaign contributions and large-scale development approvals you shouldn't be. The Boston Globe raised this issue prior to the 2009 mayoral election in an article entitled "Profiting Under Menino", which made the case that a small group of developers had received the lion's share of development rights in the city by donating heavily to the mayor. CommonWealth Magazine delved into the issue in an article entitled "Money talks—and delivers", about WinnCompanies, a local developer which is also one of the nation's largest managers and developers of affordable housing and "has a history of giving big to politicians—and winning big when it comes to state and federal funding for its development projects."
The article came after federal prosecutors arraigned a senior WinnCompanies executive for illegally funneling more than $44,000 to politicians in Massachusetts; and by year's end the founder of WinnCompanies, Arthur Winn, had pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions to political figures and was sentenced to a $100,000 fine, while avoiding jail time.
The most striking element of this narrative is the thin line between legal and illegal donations to elected officials who control public property and purse strings, and who can influence lucrative business with the city, state and federal governments. Winn did not run afoul of the law because of the moral implications of what he was doing, but rather because the methods he used were illegal. Like all other citizens, Winn will continue to have the right to donate to elected officials with influence over the development process through legal channels.
Perhaps the only way to prevent things like this is the type of good, old-fashioned shame that compelled Councilor Ross to return contributions from the Jamaica Plain developers. Opponents to the project, right or wrong, were able to shine the light of day on the influence of money in the development process... and so can you. Campaign contributions are public information and the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance posts the information to the web in a convenient, searchable format. Click here. — Special to Curbed Boston