The Remarkably Not-Boring and Thrilling Guide to the Zoning Board of Appeal Scandal
Getting confused about what's going on? We're here to help.
Two weeks ago, the Boston Globe revealed that the Walsh administration is facing another corruption case—a member of the Boston Planning and Development Agency accepted a $50,000 bribe from a real estate developer in exchange for influencing a member of the Zoning Board of Appeal to vote in favor of a change to the developer’s project.
Since then, the Walsh administration has opened an investigation, various people with ties to the case have abruptly stepped away from their jobs, and the integrity of the zoning board has come into question. Between this story’s ever-thickening plot and its roots in the confusing world of zoning and development, it’s gotten tough to keep up with what exactly is going on in City Hall, so we’ve created this guide to help you keep the major bullet points straight.
What even is the Zoning Board of Appeal?
For anyone not urgently following every step of the city’s building permit process, the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) is a seven-member entity that essentially enforces the rules about what can and cannot be built in Boston by inspecting and reviewing building projects. The mayor appoints all seven members every three years. And yes, it works closely with the Boston Planning & Development Agency, which reviews appeal applications, and then makes recommendations to the Zoning Board on “what to do.”
Who did what wrong?
John Lynch, a longtime employee of the city who has worked for the Boston Planning and Development Agency since 2016, was charged with accepting a bribe in 2017 from a real estate developer. In exchange for the bribe, Lynch advised a ZBA member to vote in favor of a permit extension on a piece of land the developer wanted to sell. According to court records cited by the Boston Globe, the permit, which allowed the property in question to be sold as a multi-unit development, helped the developer gain an extra half million dollars in profit. The BPDA itself has not been implicated, and BPDA head Brian Golden has expressed outrage, etc, at what Lynch did.
Who’s in the cast of characters?
John Lynch, Steve Turner, Craig Galvin, and William Christopher are the names that have been floated in connection to the case so far.
Lynch is currently the only person who has been charged. He officially pleaded guilty in federal court, and according to an agreement with prosecutors, could face 46 to 57 months in prison. He is expected to be sentenced at a later date.
Prosecutors have not yet identified the real estate developer or the ZBA member in question. However, individuals familiar with the investigation told the Globe that the developer was Steve Turner, and that the property involved in this case is a South Boston condo development at 27-29 H Street.
In May 2017, Turner needed the ZBA to approve an extension on a zoning variance, but he failed to appear for the meeting, and the board rejected his extension. This should have put the project to rest permanently—but two weeks later, the project somehow reappeared on the ZBA’s agenda, and was approved.
The only ZBA member to vote against killing the project at the initial meeting? Craig Galvin, a Dorchester realtor who has clear business ties to Lynch. Galvin mysteriously resigned from the ZBA this weekend. He did not address the scandal in either his resignation letter to the ZBA or in a statement he released Sunday evening.
One of Mayor Walsh’s top aides, William “Buddy” Christopher, has also bowed out of City Hall, though he says his leave is temporary. Christopher oversaw the Inspectional Services Department, an agency that advises the ZBA. He was also the original architect for the H Street project, and his son was the one who represented the project at the second ZBA meeting.
“The private sector work I performed that qualified me for the work I’ve done for the city, and the connections I made then, disqualify me from participating now in the inquiry the Mayor has requested,” the elder Christopher told the Globe. “Rather than recuse myself, I am simply taking a temporary leave of absence so as not to interfere with the inquiry.”
Update, 9/16 4 p.m.: Just hours after Mayor Walsh issued an order that bars city employees from participating in marijuana companies seeking approval from his administration, in an attempt to keep the local marijuana industry “fair, transparent, and equitable,” another ZBA member had to step down. Bruce Bickerstaff is the co-owner of Silver Therapeutics, which is seeking city permits to open a Roslindale marijuana shop. City officials told the Boston Globe that there is no evidence Bickerstaff is connected to the unfolding bribery scandal.
What’s Marty Walsh doing about it?
Last week, Walsh tasked former federal prosecutor Brian Kelly with interviewing ZBA members about just how this all happened. He also initiated “a comprehensive review of the zoning board process” conducted by law firm Sullivan & Worcester LLP.
“The pace of our growth is unparalleled to any other time in our city’s history, which is a tremendous economic boon for our city, but also brings its own set of challenges,” Walsh said in a statement. “Through this review, I want to make sure that our agencies and staff are best equipped with the knowledge, tools and training they need to do their jobs effectively and to the standard of which they are held.”
Is that going to be enough to make all this go away?
Probably not. The Globe reports that since Lynch’s agreement happened before he could be indicted by a grand jury, there’s some implication he’s cooperating with prosecutors, and US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office said they’re still investigating.
And according to City Councilor Michelle Wu, the city could be doing more.
It’s not a heavy lift for City to shed light: only 7 conversations w Mayoral appointees to see which board member(s) spoke with this former BPDA employee about project(s), and how they were involved. Anyone involved shouldn’t be voting until a more thorough investigation is done.
— Michelle Wu 吳弭 (@wutrain) September 5, 2019
Walsh was less than pleased with this take, and expressed some frustration with Wu’s Twitter habits to the Boston Business Journal:
“She tweets. I haven’t talked to her,” Walsh continued. “She tweets out a whole bunch of different ideas, and things, and that’s great, but you know, I think to be an elected official, pick up the phone, have a phone conversation, maybe find a little background out about what’s going on before people make assumptions.” Walsh then ended the interview, only to turn back and reiterate, “I don’t govern by tweets.”
However, Walsh seemed to amend his previous remarks after Wu’s tweets, telling the Boston Business Journal on Monday that he is “fully committed to overhauling the Zoning Board of Appeal.”
Additionally, while she didn’t mention the ZBA scandal explicitly, Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell called on Tuesday for the city to appoint an independent Inspector General, who would be tasked with rooting out corruption and holding the city government accountable.
“Bostonians deserve a city government that is free of corruption and waste, grounded in transparency, and accountable to the people,” Councilor Campbell said in a press release. “Rather than bringing in costly outside counsel to address scandals as they arise, Boston needs an Inspector General to bring permanent, proactive, independent oversight of Boston’s city government.”
Does the future hold more indictments? A mid-season cliffhanger or unexpected cameo? Tune in next week to find out.