The owner of Suffolk Downs has donated thousands of dollars to charities closely associated with two Boston politicians whose support for its plans to build a full-scale casino has been crucial.
The combined $16,000 donations from the Fields Family Foundation to charities affiliated with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and state Senator Anthony Petruccelli far exceed what the racetrack’s owner would be allowed to give as campaign donations under state law.
The Fields Foundation, controlled by Suffolk owner Richard Fields, donated $10,000 to Menino’s charity in 2008 and 2009, according the foundation’s nonprofit tax return. Menino has confirmed in the past that a meeting with Fields one year earlier - just after Fields bought the racetrack - was a turning point in his transformation from tepid casino supporter to full-throated ambassador.
In 2009, the Fields charity donated $6,000 to a foundation established by Petruccelli, a Democrat from East Boston, where the track is located, and has provided key support to Suffolk’s casino plans after voicing early skepticism.
The money from the developer, who is hoping for a payday worth hundreds of millions of dollars, helped both politicians maintain their political profiles. Such donations are not illegal.
Both Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, and Petruccelli said in interviews that their positions on the casino issue were not influenced by the donations or any promise of contributions. They said their charities solicit donations from many businesses.
Representatives for Fields said the donations represent a small portion of his foundation’s contributions to causes around the country. The local causes, they said, are in line with those interests and part of the track’s commitment to supporting charities throughout the community.
Fields, who lives in Jackson, Wyo., has not made political donations to any of the politicians debating a bill to legalize casinos in Massachusetts, according to state campaign finance records. Such donations would have been a more traditional route to gaining political access.
Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo do not have similar charities.
“For the past two decades, Richard Fields and his family have contributed more than ten million dollars to local community charities focused on helping families, children and law enforcement,’’ Martin R. Klein, chief operating officer of Coastal Development, the New York-based parent company of Suffolk, said in a statement. “In every local community he is involved, including the Boston area, he has supported worthwhile local charities.’’
The Menino-related donations went to a city charity called the Fund for Boston Neighborhoods, which has, while helping some of Boston’s poorest, also paid for the types of public events that have helped Menino maintain his political profile. Last year, for example, the charity bought Christmas gifts for poor children on behalf of the mayor and hosted the “Mayor’s Cup’’ bicycle race and block party on City Hall Plaza, according to the fund’s nonprofit tax filing.
Menino’s stature as a casino supporter has been important to building a broader political coalition favoring expanded gambling in the state. His backing would also be essential in winning local approval - a process that will be far more complicated than the average development approval process - should Suffolk get a license.
Joyce said Menino encourages all companies that do business in the city to get involved with its charities.
“We touch every base when we’re raising money for that fund,’’ Joyce said. “This is companies being good neighbors. Obviously, no matter how much money they donate, it’s the merits of their projects and the merits of their proposals that would allow them to move forward.’’
As Suffolk’s local lawmaker, Petruccelli is also important in the track’s casino bid. The Representative Anthony Petruccelli Charitable Foundation was established in 2005, according to state corporate records, before Petruccelli became a senator. Petruccelli said in an interview that the charity hosts a yearly Christmas dinner, the Eastie Elves, for 500 East Boston residents in which it collects toys for needy children. The senator embraced the casino plan before he received a donation from Fields, but has since supported language in the casino bill that would help make local approval easier.
The Petruccelli foundation does not appear to be registered either with the Internal Revenue Service or the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, according to online database searches and representatives for the agencies. Petruccelli also failed to disclose his former role as the foundation’s president, on at least two of his statements of financial interest, which lawmakers must file annually with the State Ethics Commission.
In 2008, Petruccelli removed himself as the company’s president, and he said in a recent interview that he does not solicit donations. State corporate records show that he was replaced by his chief of staff, Ed Deveau, who did not return a message left for him at Petruccelli’s office.
“I know they’ve been struggling with them in trying to follow up with their reports,’’ Petruccelli said. “I know that is an area where there’s a deficiency in information. They’re continuing to try to straighten all that information out.’’
Petruccelli said he did not know he needed to list his previous position as the organization’s president on his Ethics Commission filing, even though the form specifically requires it.
His sister, Diana Petruccelli DeLeo, serves as the charity’s clerk. (She is not related to the House speaker). She said in an e-mailed statement that the charity relies on unpaid volunteers for the Eastie’s Elves party.
“The organization is reviewing the requirements for compliance with both the Attorney General’s Public Charities Division as well as whether any other informational filings may be required,’’ the statement read.
The IRS spokeswoman, Peggy Riley, said a charity could face tax evasion charges if it collects tax-free gifts and intentionally does not register as a nonprofit. But the organization can legally operate as a for-profit corporation, as long as it files a yearly tax return, she said. Those returns are not public and Petruccelli did not answer specific questions about its tax filings.
Petruccelli said his position on allowing a casino in East Boston evolved as he studied the issue and learned how many more jobs it would create than a slot parlor. Though already a supporter by the time he received a donation from the Fields Foundation in 2009, over the last two years, the state senator has made sure bills before the Legislature have included a provision that would make local approval easier.
He has inserted language that makes East Boston the only neighborhood in the city that would get to vote in a referendum to approve a casino. Other potential casino sites outside of Boston would require referendums by the entire city or town.
Petruccelli said the residents deserve to decide their own fate on casinos, without interference from distant neighborhoods in other parts of Boston.
“The amendment’s not for [Suffolk]. The amendment’s for the community that I live in,’’ Petruccelli said. “For decades, bureaucrats, state agencies, media outlets have all said to people in East Boston what is good for them.’’Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.