WASHINGTON — When Democrats took control of Congress in 2021, they resurrected the practice of directing federal funds to specific projects in lawmakers’ districts, but pledged this iteration of earmarks would be cleaned of past misuse.
In the two years since, Representative Stephen Lynch not only resumed the practice, but brought back familiar recipients: the health center in South Boston where his wife works and an addiction treatment provider where she is a board member.
Lynch won an earmark of $2 million in fiscal year 2023 for the South Boston Community Health Center, where his wife, Margaret Lynch, is director of marketing and development. In fiscal 2022, Lynch won an earmark of $1 million for the Gavin Foundation, another nonprofit based in South Boston that provides addiction services. Margaret Lynch is an unpaid director.
The two awards bring the total number of earmarks that Lynch has directed to the two organizations to 11 over 20 years.
Lynch argues neither earmark violate congressional rules that bar lawmakers and their immediate family from having “any financial interest” in a requested earmark. But ethics experts say the two examples underscore how Congress may be so narrowly enforcing its guidelines that they have become meaningless.
Earmarks recently returned to Congress under new rules lawmakers sold as cleaning up the longtime practice. Members have to certify they have no financial interest in an award, recipients cannot be for-profit entities, and there must be community support for the requests. All requests are public, and there is a cap on the number House members can make in a fiscal year.
Ethics experts question, however, if Lynch lived up to the spirit of the requirements, and whether Congress has put enough guardrails around them to earn public trust.
“Government ethics is not just about corrupt intent, but about ensuring that reasonable people can have confidence in the system,” said Kathleen Clark, a Washington University professor who specializes in government ethics. “Even assuming that he could honestly affirm what he is required to affirm, [the rule on financial interest is] so narrow in focus that it doesn’t capture ... concern about favoritism and gaming the system.”
Earmarks are line items in federal budgets that fund specific projects, as requested by the lawmakers representing those areas. They were banned in 2010 by a Republican-controlled Congress amid the Tea Party backlash to bloated federal budgets and concern that so-called congressional pork was full of favoritism.
But in 2021, Democrats brought back the practice, with some Republican support, after regaining control of Washington, arguing that added transparency and ethical requirements would allow members to direct money to good causes without the questionable practices of the past.
As part of every earmark request, each lawmaker is required to certify that “neither I nor my immediate family has any financial interest in this project.”
Margaret Lynch has been marketing and development director for the South Boston center since 1996, according to her LinkedIn profile. That puts her in charge of fund-raising for the organization. In 2023, Stephen Lynch directed a $2 million earmark to the organization to fund a two-story addition, according to earmark disclosures he filed.
She has also been on the Gavin Foundation board since 2003. In 2022, Lynch directed $1 million to that organization to construct and renovate recovery centers.
The $2 million for the South Boston health center in 2023 was among the roughly $30 million in 14 earmarks Lynch secured for his district. In 2022, he got nine earmarks for his district totaling roughly $11.5 million, including the $1 million for Gavin Foundation.
House lawmakers were allowed to request up to 15 earmarks in 2023 and 10 in 2022, and Massachusetts’ representatives all asked for the maximum. Lynch was one of the highest-dollar requesters in 2023, securing the second-largest amount, behind Newton Democrat Representative Jake Auchincloss.
Lynch was the only member of Congress from Massachusetts who requested an earmark in either year for an organization that employed their spouse.
Before earmarks were banned, Lynch got nearly $2 million combined for the two organizations through nine earmarks from 2003 to 2010. The money was largely either for capital improvements or substance abuse services. In total, he has secured six earmarks for the South Boston health center and five for Gavin Foundation over those two decades, according to Globe reporting and a database maintained by the anti-earmark organization Citizens Against Government Waste.
No other single entity has gotten as many earmarks from Lynch in his time in Congress. A similar organization in his district, the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center, received two — $1 million in 2023, and $312,000 in 2008, both for facility improvements. Lynch’s district spans from South Boston to West Bridgewater and Walpole.
The Globe has previously reported Lynch also secured nearly $800,000 in state funding while serving in the Massachusetts Senate that “bailed out” the South Boston health center when it was in a financial crisis, according to its chief executive. His wife was working for the center at the time.
Lynch maintains the earmarks are above board. His office and the center say Margaret Lynch’s salary comes out of the center’s general budget and is unaffected by the specific projects funded through earmarks. In 2007, the House ethics committee issued a finding to Lynch, which he shared with the Globe, that his wife’s job at the South Boston health center did not qualify as a financial interest for the congressman, as the earmark he proposed at the time had no “direct and foreseeable effect” on her salary or on her continued employment.
When earmarks were reintroduced, the House circulated guidance in 2021 that reminded members of the “direct and foreseeable effect” standard. His office dismissed any concerns about favoritism.
“Each funding award seeks to respond to the need for services within a community and to maximize the number of persons that benefit from that funding award,” said his spokesperson, Molly Rose Tarpey, citing the significant work in the community that both organizations do.
The organizations are well regarded in South Boston, with the health center among the largest providers of primary care in the area. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu hailed the health center funding in a Facebook post praising Lynch for securing it. Gavin Foundation serves 10,000 people across the state each year, Tarpey said. As nonprofits providing health and addiction services, they are similar to other earmark recipients nationally.
In a statement, Gavin Foundation chief executive John McGahan said Lynch’s earmarks have “helped the organization save lives and restore families affect(ed) by addiction.”
But ethics experts are nonetheless concerned about Lynch’s habit of getting earmarks for them and about Congress’ narrow interpretation of its own ethical standards. They note that Margaret Lynch’s job for the health center explicitly involves fund-raising, and the $2 million it received in this year’s funding marks a sizable part of its non-patient revenues. In fiscal year 2022, the most recent available financial records, the center brought in $12.6 million in patient revenue and $9.5 million from grants and other sources, as well as nearly $250,000 for “capital acquisition.”
McGahan requested the earmark for Gavin Foundation, he said, and Lynch’s office said the CEO of the South Boston health center, not Margaret Lynch, requested the money for the construction project. Lynch’s office did not answer whether Margaret Lynch ever discussed the earmark with her husband.
Neither she nor the health center’s chief executive, William J. Halpin, Jr., responded to requests for comment.
The experts note that even if the causes are good, guardrails on spending are about ensuring the public can trust the process is not subject to favoritism, and that means avoiding even the appearance of any.
“If it appears that there’s a way to game the earmarks system by associating with or hiring a congressional spouse, that undermines public confidence in the congressional earmark system,” Clark said.
The issue isn’t just about an individual lawmaker, they say, but also how narrowly Congress is interpreting its own ban on financial interest to include only “direct” conflicts.
“I imagine they are squinting really hard to read that language to mean because the earmark isn’t explicitly paying for her salary, then it isn’t a financial interest,” said Danielle Brian, president of the Project on Government Oversight, an anti-corruption nonprofit watchdog. “I’ll bet they are the only people who read it that way. I sure don’t.”