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Greenway appoints investigator after critical report

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy’s handling last year of Janet Echelman’s floating sculpture has been criticized in a report.
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy’s handling last year of Janet Echelman’s floating sculpture has been criticized in a report.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File 2015

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy has launched an internal investigation after an anonymous outside group released a report alleging financial mismanagement by the nonprofit.

In a meeting last week, members of the conservancy’s finance, audit, and risk-management committee voted to appoint board member Bud Ris to spearhead an investigation following the report, which was delivered by a group calling itself the Greenway Whistleblowers.

“We have a policy in place for questions of misconduct,” said Jesse Brackenbury, executive director of the conservancy. Brackenbury, who flatly rejected many of the report’s allegations, added, “We are following that process.”

The report criticizes the conservancy’s handling last year of Janet Echelman’s floating sculpture, “As If It Were Already Here.” Although the popular project was originally estimated to cost around $500,000, its budget eventually tripled, costing more than $1.7 million.

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“Despite being presented as a success, the truth behind [the] Janet Echelman project tells a different story,” write the report’s authors, who describe themselves as past and current volunteers and staffers at the conservancy. The document, first reported by the Boston Herald, charges that the project’s budget increases are representative of the organization’s broader “misuse of public and private funds.”

Michael Nichols, chief of staff for the conservancy, forcefully rebuffed that assertion, noting that the Echelman project was funded almost entirely with private money. He added that the project’s financial backers were advised early — and in open meetings — that the Echelman project’s budget would inevitably increase.

“We stated to both our board and the public that the biggest variable would be the contract labor to put it up and bring it down,” Nichols said. “It was a known unknown. It was a variable we understood and communicated to our board.”

Brackenbury, who said that many of the report’s allegations “depart significantly from reality,” said ambitious projects like the Echelman sculpture demand bigger budgets.

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“Project costs went up, revenues went up, but we ran a balanced budget, and we delivered the most transformational public art project that Boston has seen,” Brackenbury said, comparing the project to an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. “Nobody’s asking the MFA what it costs to put on a show, and we’re not putting on a show behind a gate that people have to pay for. We’re putting on public art for the public — and we’re doing it with entirely private dollars.”

The 20-page report criticizes the conservancy on a number of other fronts, charging that the nonprofit uses “accounting tricks” to obscure a host of financial misdeeds.

“It is imperative that the right actions are taken and the appropriate changes are implemented in order to hold [the] Greenway [to] the same standards as the rest of the public-funded organizations in Massachusetts,” the report’s authors write.

Nichols rejected the charges of financial mismanagement, adding that several of the report’s allegations were “completely false.”

He said the conservancy’s board of trustees includes several government appointees, including members selected by Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and other government officials.

“That board is ensuring that we are well-managed and well-run,” said Nichols, who reiterated the investigation was a matter of policy. “Our board found it to be the appropriate action to conduct an initial inquiry — not to dismiss the allegations out of hand, but to actually review and make a determination on the accuracy of the report.”

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The report’s authors did not make themselves available for comment.

“We try to be as transparent as possible and provide links to all sorts of information,” Brackenbury said. “The best that we can do is continue to address these things in a straightforward way and continue to deliver an outstanding, clean, safe, park that has amazing projects like the Echelman.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.