The Drinks Are on Them

In dominating the city’s liquor license scene, the law firm of McDermott, Quilty & Miller has lots to celebrate. The rest of us? Not so much.

At various times throughout these early years, Miller came across Dennis Quilty, who had taken a more straightforward path into the business. After starting out as an attorney in the city’s law department, he got hooked up with nightspot magnate Patrick Lyons. As Lyons worked to open his club Zanzibar, Quilty handled the licensing. By the time the doors opened in 1987, Quilty had earned a good reputation—and some important connections. As his business grew, he increasingly found himself in direct competition for clients with another lawyer in town: Miller. “Eventually, it just made sense to sit down and talk,” Quilty says. In 1997 they formalized their partnership.

Both Miller and Quilty had long been politically active: Miller was once VP of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association lobbying group, and Quilty was president of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and a twice-failed candidate for public office. So they understood from the start that the key to the liquor license process was getting in with neighborhood organizations—and with local politicians. The licensing board highly values those groups’ input when making decisions. Win the neighbors and the pols, and you win the board.

Winning the neighbors, however, is not particularly easy. They are the sassy sitcom grandma of the body politic: They don’t like noise, they hate it when people are out late, and their first instinct is to say no to everything—especially anything new. “If it’s something they don’t know, they always think of the worst case,” Miller says. Adds Quilty, “Sometimes their objections are reasonable and sometimes they’re not. There’s no other way to put it.”

But if such groups are gently walked through the process and made to feel important, they are much more likely to relent to an applicant’s wishes. After years in the business, Miller and Quilty have become better than anybody at this belly-rubbing. “They’re the ones who are most likely to call in advance and say, ‘I’ve got a guy who wants to do this, is there any chance this is going to fly?'” says Tom Clemens, who cochairs the licensing committee for the Beacon Hill Civic Association. The two lawyers say 
that if they don’t think they can win over the neighbors, they won’t take the case.

It’s Miller and Quilty’s involvement with local pols, however, that has attracted scrutiny. In 2001, for example, the Globe detailed their close ties to Tom Menino’s administration, noting that in the three previous years, members of the firm and their clients had donated more than $56,000 to Menino’s campaign fund, while at the same time the lawyers had scored significantly more meetings with key city officials than other firms’ attorneys. Though Miller was never accused of wrongdoing, his name popped up last year in connection with the Dianne Wilkerson scandal (Wilkerson sent him Ron Wilburn, the man who was allegedly bribing her, as a state senator, to help him win a liquor license). The Globe used the occasion to remind its readers just how politically wired Miller and Quilty are.

And they are wired. Since 2001, Miller has made more than $50,000 in local political donations, while Quilty has given more than $20,000. The firm has also helped raise thousands for candidates by arranging numerous fundraisers. The list of recipients is long and, aside from the mayor, includes state Treasurer Tim Cahill, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and state reps and senators of every stripe. In the past year, members of Miller and Quilty’s firm have also donated to eight of the 13 Boston city councilors—the same people who have make-or-break sway over all the proposals that come before the licensing board—including council president Mike Ross.

Not surprisingly, Miller, Quilty, and all the pols involved insist these contributions don’t affect the firm’s standing with the licensing board. “I’ve sent back checks [from restaurant and bar owners] if they have occurred before any kind of decision or in the middle of a process,” Ross says. “Whoever thinks that you can go out there and use that contribution to get what you want—to me, that’s bad public policy.” Still, Miller acknowledges that all the donations and fundraisers “certainly help you get access to [politicians]. And that’s the biggest thing you need, access to the public officials.”

Such is the firm’s reach that politicians have even supported bids that don’t seem to concern them. When South Boston eatery Franklin Southie won a 2 a.m. full liquor license from the board last year, it enjoyed not just the backing of South Boston Councilor Bill Linehan, but also that of Ross, who wrote an endorsement to the board on official city stationery—even though the council president represents Beacon Hill.