A top aide and close ally of Mayor Martin J. Walsh is taking a leave of absence amid a federal bribery investigation that has rocked City Hall, the administration announced Friday.
William “Buddy” Christopher, who is the mayor’s point person on the city’s opioid crisis, will step down temporarily while the city’s lawyers investigate prosecutors’ allegations of influence-peddling at the Zoning Board of Appeal. Christopher previously spent most of the last five years overseeing the city’s Inspectional Services Department, the agency that provides staffing and recommendations on permits and variances to the zoning board.
City documents obtained by the Globe show that prior to joining the Walsh administration, Christopher was the original architect for a condominium project on H Street in South Boston that is at the center of the bribery probe by the US attorney’s office. His son James — who later took over Christopher’s firm — represented the developer before the board in 2017 when a questionable series of votes rescued the H Street project after its permit had expired.
The elder Christopher was head of inspectional services at the time of those votes.
Neither Christopher has been accused of wrongdoing. The elder Christopher said in a statement Friday night that he will step aside while Walsh reviews the zoning board and its votes on the H Street project.
“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,” he said. “Rather than recuse myself, I am simply taking a temporary leave of absence so as not to interfere with the inquiry.”
A spokeswoman for the administration said that Christopher stepped down proactively to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest during the review, but that there was no evidence at this time of any wrongdoing.
Last week, longtime city employee John Lynch admitted to taking a $50,000 bribe to secure a favorable zoning board vote for the developer, with the help of one of its members. The disclosure raises questions about the integrity of the zoning board, whose members are appointed by the mayor, and the city’s permitting process.
The city has hired former federal public corruption prosecutor Brian Kelly to interview zoning board members to learn more about the incident. Walsh has also hired law firm Sullivan & Worcester LLP to take a broader look at the zoning board and how it operates.
Meanwhile, US Attorney Andrew Lelling has said his criminal investigation is ongoing. Lynch is due to appear Thursday in federal court in Boston.
The city records obtained by the Globe show that Lynch — who worked for a separate city department and had no official role in the H Street project — used his city government e-mail to ask a zoning board lawyer to place it on the agenda of the board’s May 9, 2017, meeting for an extension of zoning changes that had expired. That day, members voted to deny the extension after the developer failed to show up. Despite that denial, the matter was back on the agenda at a meeting two weeks later, and members voted to grant the extension.
“It continues to be a top priority to get to the bottom of what happened here,” said Samantha Ormsby, a spokeswoman for Walsh. “We anticipate having our questions answered through attorney Brian Kelly’s review, and Mayor Walsh is taking the action needed until we know more.”
City officials initially balked at a request to release the records, but turned them over Friday after a demand by the Globe’s attorney.
Christopher had several ties to key figures in the bribery scheme federal prosecutors announced last week.
According to documents filed with the Massachusetts secretary of state, he formed a real estate company in 2011 with developer Steven M. Turner. Christopher also originally designed the condo development on H Street in 2013, which was acquired by Turner the following year. After Christopher joined the inspectional services department, Turner kept Christopher’s son James on as the project’s architect.
Federal prosecutors have not named the project or the developer involved in the bribery, but two people familiar with the case said it was the H Street development, and Turner. He has not responded to requests for comment.
The news of Christopher’s involvement in the South Boston development also brings the scandal to Walsh’s inner circle.
Since joining Walsh’s cabinet in 2014, Christopher has been a visible, outspoken, even provocative, director of inspectional services, an agency with a broad portfolio in the city, holding sway over anything from restaurant health inspections to building plans for skyscrapers. In 2015 he invited TV crews to film him eating at a Chipotle restaurant in Cleveland Circle that had been the source of a norovirus outbreak, to show he was comfortable that his staff had addressed the problem.
A longtime family friend from Dorchester, Christopher’s connection to Walsh even included buying the mayor’s former home in Savin Hill in 2015, paying $650,000 for the two-family on Tuttle Street when the mayor moved to Lower Mills, records show.
And Walsh has trusted Christopher to handle some of the city’s thorniest challenges. In June, the mayor tapped him to coordinate the city’s response to the intersection at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, known for its concentration of addiction recovery services in the area.
As public concern grew about the opioid addicts who gather near the intersection, Walsh said that he had tapped Christopher to coordinate services to the area because “I know he’ll get it done.”