EVERETT — Residents of Waters Avenue had been fighting a proposed 200-unit apartment building for five years, warning city officials that it was just too big, with too little parking for a short street already choked with cars.
But developer Gary P. DeCicco — a felon with a history of fires of suspicious origin on his properties and nasty disputes with the government over his unpaid taxes — found a new ally when Mayor Carlo DeMaria took office in 2008.
DeMaria stood virtually alone in support of DeCicco’s project at a key 2010 hearing, admitting that even his staff opposed the plan, meeting minutes show. But with the mayor’s blessing, DeCicco won the approvals he needed, setting up DeCicco and his partners to make millions when they sold the land to another developer as soon as they secured their permits.
The mayor’s relationship with DeCicco and another felon, their mutual friend Charles Lightbody, sheds new light on the controversy over Steve Wynn’s proposal to build a $1.6 billion casino in Everett along the Mystic River. DeCicco and Lightbody were among the investors who bought the land in 2009, but their names disappeared from official documents by the time Wynn arrived in 2012.
When the Globe reported late last year that the two felons might be among the owners, the news threatened to derail the casino proposal, and spurred a federal and state investigation into potential secret owners and whether anyone gave false statements to government officials.
Through it all, DeMaria has been Everett’s biggest casino booster as the city voted overwhelmingly in favor of Wynn’s plan. He even offered to have Everett acquire the proposed casino site by eminent domain to make sure any questionable characters were bought out before the casino was approved.
But one thing DeMaria did not do is disclose his relationship with DeCicco and Lightbody or their involvement in the casino project, which would have been a serious black mark against Wynn’s effort to obtain a state casino license.
It is illegal in Massachusetts for felons to have a financial stake in a casino, which regulators have interpreted to include an indirect stake such as owning a casino site.
DeMaria also filed no ethics disclosure showing that he had what state gambling regulators call a “longterm personal friendship” with Lightbody, and that Lightbody was his main contact among the owners of the proposed casino site. Before his participation in the project became public, Lightbody stood to make millions from the casino that DeMaria was promoting.
State ethics law calls for disclosure of any relationship that could create the impression that a public official is biased, including “close friendship.”
DeMaria said in a written statement that he saw no reason to disclose his relationship with Lightbody or DeCicco, a political supporter who the mayor acknowledges has twice had him as a guest on his private yacht. DeMaria said neither relationship created a conflict of interest in his pursuit of a casino for his hard-luck city.
DeMaria also said he sees no problem associating with DeCicco and Lightbody.
“As mayor of the city, you associate on a daily basis with people from all walks of life,” he said in his statement to the Globe.
DeMaria had no interest in discussing the casino controversy further, canceling four scheduled meetings with the Globe before finally admitting he does not want to be interviewed.
“I’ve done nothing against the law,” he said.
The mayor’s friends
Everett, one of the poorest cities in the state, has a history of rough-and-tumble politics, producing a respected House speaker on the one hand, and a disgraced state representative who went to prison for voter fraud last year on the other. DeMaria grew up in the thick of it, winning election to the city’s Common Council before he had graduated from Northeastern University.
Now 41, DeMaria is the picture of a successful politician, a garrulous personality with a photogenic family and a silver Mercedes that he parks in the mayor’s space at City Hall. He has done well financially, too, as the owner of four Honey Dew Donut shops and two houses in Everett, including a two-family.
Beneath the polish, however, critics say DeMaria plays hardball, using the power of his office to benefit himself. A scrap dealer filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 charging that DeMaria singled him out for inspections and penalties because he did not give regularly to the mayor’s campaign. He said DeMaria told him, “Your problem is you should get on board [and] attend my fund-raising events.”
DeMaria and other officials denied all the allegations, but agreed to find the dealer in compliance with city rules and stop enforcement actions against him, after a federal judge found “evidence of personal malice and bad faith negotiations” on their part. The dealer, in turn, dropped the suit.
And some question DeMaria’s choice of personal associates, among them numerous convicted criminals. The mayor, a regular gambler who plays cards at various social clubs, counts among his campaign donors at least six convicted bookmakers, including one, Scott Martinelli, who was identified by prosecutors as a leader of a massive sports gambling and narcotics ring in 2004. He was convicted on gambling offenses.
Despite Martinelli’s criminal record, the city hired Martinelli to work in the public works department and Martinelli’s wife to work in DeMaria’s office, city records show. The Martinellis then gave $1,250 to DeMaria’s campaign.
Lightbody, a wealthy businessman who owns 12 properties in Revere alone, has a four-page Massachusetts criminal record that includes 10 assault charges, three counts of illegal weapons possession, and two counts of witness intimidation. He has been convicted at least eight times.
Despite that raft of charges, Lightbody has served only two short prison terms of a couple of months apiece, according to his criminal record. When he admitted to his role in a massive identity theft ring that targeted immigrants — police seized vast amounts of merchandise from his home that was allegedly purchased through credit card fraud — Lightbody was sentenced to probation.
Approached by a Globe reporter this month during a court hearing on his alleged 2013 assault against a supporter of the casino proposed for Revere, Lightbody politely declined to answer questions about his record or his relationship with the mayor of Everett.
“You guys have already bashed me pretty good,” he said, referring to previous news coverage. “I don’t have anything to say.”
DeMaria, who refers to Lightbody as Charlie, said in his statement that the men became friends 15 or 16 years ago when Lightbody came into the Revere Honey Dew Donuts while DeMaria was behind the counter. The mayor said that the two have gone to restaurants together, but DeMaria stressed that the friendship is limited.
“We have not been to each other’s homes, do not socialize together with our wives, do not vacation together and do not go to clubs together,” according to his statement.
Lightbody has been a political supporter of the mayor. He has given DeMaria $3,500 in political contributions since 2002 and his business partners have given at least as much, according to state records.
After DeMaria’s election, the city of Everett hired Lightbody’s partner Jamie Russo, who was arrested in the early 1990s as part of a ring using forged or stolen credit cards to get cash at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut.
DeMaria did not know Gary DeCicco well when he took office in 2008, but the two had a powerful reason to connect when DeCicco emerged as one of Everett’s leading businessmen, an owner of two of the city’s most important development sites. One was the long-stalled Waters Avenue apartment project; the other was the abandoned and highly contaminated Monsanto Chemical Co. site.
DeCicco took it upon himself to build a relationship with DeMaria, testifying in a civil lawsuit that he personally informed DeMaria about his purchase of the Monsanto land that would became Wynn’s proposed casino site. He also met with the mayor more than once to discuss his proposed apartment project.
DeMaria insists that DeCicco is not his friend, just a local businessman he knows.
“He was interested in developing property in Everett. He took me to see a marina he had developed in Winthrop,” DeMaria said in his statement.
By the time DeMaria took office in 2008, DeCicco was already a felon who had been investigated for arson fires and who the federal government said owed more than $1 million in back taxes. His own lawyers said during his insurance fraud trial that the federal government regarded DeCicco as “a tax cheat of major proportions.”
Fire officials say that there have been at least eight suspicious fires on property owned by him, his family, or his longtime girlfriend, including a 1995 warehouse fire in Chelsea that displaced nearby residents and resulted in firefighter injuries. Federal prosecutors said that fire, the third at the same address, was part of a scheme to collect insurance and DeCicco was convicted of fraud — though he was acquitted of arson.
“This guy was a suspect in setting several arson fires,” said Joseph M. Siewko, the retired fire chief in Chelsea, who worked with a federal and state task force investigating DeCicco in the 2000s. “We considered him to be a dangerous guy . . . He was involved in a lot of stuff and nothing stuck. He skated on a lot of stuff, I don’t know how, but he did.”
DeCicco’s lawyer said his client is a “legitimate businessman” who never committed arson, noting that some of the burned buildings did not even have insurance on them.
“Gary DeCicco is a guy who resolves disputes gruffly and he’s made a lot of enemies over the years,” his lawyer, Joseph Oteri, said. “There may be someone out there trying to set him up on these fires.”
DeCicco continues to careen from one battle to another: a restaurant in Saugus, the Atlantic Lobster Co., owned by his longtime girlfriend, caught fire several times during a long fight with town officials about DeCicco’s plans to develop the property. Then, in 2011, DeCicco and his girlfriend, Pamela Avedisian, were fined $100,000 for destroying wetlands as they cleaned up the rubble.
Currently, DeCicco faces mounting anger from Winthrop officials about allegedly illegal sewage discharges into the harbor at his Atlantis Marina development.
In the middle of the dispute, a condo resident who had objected to the pollution charged that DeCicco threatened to kill him.
According to a police report, Michael Segal said that he had made an offhand remark about DeCicco — “Quite the guy, that client of yours.” — in an e-mail to DeCicco’s attorney.
Segal told police in the Dec. 18, 2013, report that DeCicco called almost immediately and unleashed a stream of profanities, saying he would “teach you what a baby you are . . . I’ll be downstairs tomorrow at 9 waiting for you. You’re making the biggest mistake of your life. That’s the end of you.”
DeCicco, through his lawyer, denied threatening Segal.
DeMaria insists that his 2010 intervention on behalf of DeCicco’s controversial apartment project at Waters Avenue was not a personal favor, but part of his plan to boost property values in the city.
“It was part of my vision for that area, to get young professionals into the city,” he explained during a brief City Hall exchange in late May.
DeCicco never built the apartments, selling the property for nearly quadruple the $1 million purchase price one month after securing the final required permit. Another company is now building the apartments.
And DeCicco showed his appreciation, along with his business partner, donating $1,500 to DeMaria’s campaign after DeMaria threw his support behind the Waters Avenue project.
DeCicco also invited DeMaria aboard his yacht twice, the mayor confirms, at least once going out for a ride on Boston Harbor.
DeMaria does not deny the boat ride, but stressed that the trip was not a political fund-raiser. “I have nothing to hide,” he insisted.
By the time Steve Wynn and his entourage toured the old Monsanto Chemical site with DeMaria in November 2012, DeCicco and Lightbody were no longer listed as owners. Though the two had been part of the group of four who bought the property in 2009 for $8 million, each said he withdrew from the deal prior to Wynn’s arrival.
Instead, three men, who called their company FBT Everett Realty, presented themselves as the owners and these three — Paul Lohnes, Anthony Gattineri, and Dustin DeNunzio — negotiated the deal under which Wynn Resorts would pay them $75 million if the company won approval for a resort casino on the land, according to gambling commission documents.
Gambling commission investigators later concluded that the official owners said nothing to Wynn representatives about the involvement of the felons in the original purchase of the land and, as a result, Wynn did not know that DeCicco had been involved as an investor until a Boston Business Journal article in December 2012.
And Wynn officials say they didn’t discover Lightbody’s involvement until July 2013, when one of the partners, DeNunzio, admitted backdating documents to make it look like Lightbody had been bought out before Wynn arrived.
But DeMaria — the official who Wynn Resorts executives say attracted them to Everett in the first place — apparently knew that Lightbody was involved from the beginning. He told investigators for the gambling commission that he was aware that Lightbody was a co-owner of the land, saying “my only contact for FBT would have been Charlie.”
For months after Wynn’s arrival in Everett, Lightbody seemed to have inside knowledge of the casino project’s progress, based on tape-recorded conversations from August 2012 to June 2013 with a state prison inmate, an organized crime figure named Daren Bufalino.
For instance, Lightbody talked hopefully to Bufalino about the planned first meeting between Wynn and DeMaria at the mayor’s office, listed on DeMaria’s calendar for Nov. 14, 2012.
“Steve Wynn is supposed to be coming down tomorrow at 10:30 to talk to the mayor,” Lightbody told Bufalino on Nov. 13, 2012, the day before the planned meeting, according to a transcript of the conversation from the gambling commission. “You’ll probably see this on the news.”
The prison tapes make clear that Lightbody understood the need to avoid having his name connected to the 30-acre proposed casino site.
“I’ll take my name off. I have no problem and now actually it works out ’cause with these casinos, they see my name in there, they ain’t gonna like it,” Lightbody told Bufalino on August 16, 2012. “So I will never show up on it, which is a good thing . . . I’m kind of excited about it.”
DeMaria has not answered questions about what information, if any, he passed along to Lightbody.
However, DeMaria told gambling commission investigators that he believed Lightbody was still financially involved after the June 2013 vote in Everett to support Wynn’s proposal, in part because Lightbody seemed excited by the vote.
That would be almost 10 months after Lightbody supposedly withdrew from the real estate deal, based on documents provided to the gambling commission by FBT Everett Realty.
DeCicco’s continuing role in the land deal, if any, is more ambiguous. DeCicco didn’t pay his share of the 2009 purchase price, recruiting Lightbody to invest $1 million in hopes of shoring up the financing of the deal. However, DeCicco still didn’t have money to pay his share, eventually angering Lightbody and the other partners.
DeCicco “robbed everybody . . . He’s a [expletive] bad dude, man, bad to the bone,” Lightbody told Bufalino in December 2012. In the taped conversation, he said that DeCicco was no longer part of the deal.
But gambling commission investigators could not determine whether DeCicco was really out, in large measure because the documentation related to ownership of the site was rife with inconsistencies.
Investigators found a January 2012 document that showed DeCicco was no longer an owner, but also another document dated three months later showed that DeCicco was only then transferring his ownership to Lightbody.
As a result, the gambling commission in late 2013 required Wynn to renegotiate the land deal in hopes of squeezing out any secret owners.
Wynn slashed the purchase price from $75 million to $35 million, and regulators required the three official owners to sign pledges that no one else would receive the money.
Last week, Gattineri finally signed the pledge. Gaming commission investigators, saying they remain concerned about the “cast of characters” in the deal, turned their information over to state and federal investigators who are now calling witnesses before a grand jury.
globe.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes.@globe.com.