Metro

From the Archives

Brian Joyce thrives at the edge of a fuzzy boundary

Senator’s law work and political role often seem to overlap

Senator Brian Joyce (center) was an attorney for Organogenesis and celebrated its groundbreaking in 2010.
Senator Brian Joyce (center) was an attorney for Organogenesis and celebrated its groundbreaking in 2010.

Energi of Peabody has been very good to state Senator Brian A. Joyce. The private company, which sells insurance to the energy industry, has provided enough legal work to help the Milton Democrat more than double the size of his law firm, Joyce Law Group.

And when Energi executives ask for help, Joyce has responded, approaching state regulators on Energi’s behalf repeatedly, even though state law discourages lawmakers from lobbying state officials for clients. Joyce was such a regular, he eventually became the butt of a joke at the Division of Insurance, government e-mail records show.

“He’s baaaaaaack,” wrote insurance commissioner Joseph Murphy to one of his employees on Sept. 6, 2014, explaining that Joyce was again asking the agency to help Energi with a licensing issue.

Advertisement

Joyce, now assistant majority leader in the Senate, has frequently blurred the lines between his public duties and his private business, based on a Globe review of his legal work and campaign spending. While other lawyer-legislators take pains to separate their two jobs, Joyce seems to freely mix the two. He aggressively seeks legal work from cities and towns that rely on the Legislature for funding, and he rarely discloses clients to the state Ethics Commission, which is required if a lawmaker sees potential for conflicts of interest in his votes.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Joyce did not, for example, disclose his ties to Energi even as he sponsored a bill promoted by the company, gave speeches at Energi-sponsored conferences, and served on the legislative committee that oversees the industry that Energi insures.

In the same way, Joyce has championed legislation backed by an association of Dunkin’ Donuts shop owners without disclosing that some of the owners are clients. The owners threw a 2012 fund-raiser for Joyce to thank him for his help with the bill, prompting their lobbyist to joke that Joyce “views us as a cash cow,” according to an internal e-mail obtained by the Globe.

The Globe review of Joyce’s campaign spending suggests that there, too, he has intermingled private and public matters.

Joyce acknowledged to the Globe that he spent $3,400 from his campaign account for a son’s high school graduation party last June, claiming that the event was part of his reelection effort even though he faced no opponent. Joyce also charges far more to his campaign for his vehicle than any other senator, $749 a month for a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Only two other senators charged their campaign for cars in 2014.

Advertisement

And Joyce has already drawn attention for mixing personal and public affairs in another way, obtaining a 75 percent discount on $234-a-pair designer sunglasses he gave to fellow senators and family members as gifts last December. The unusual discount was not listed on the company’s website; state law forbids public officials from receiving a discount not available to everyone.

In a way, Joyce is simply taking advantage of Massachusetts’ relatively weak ethics rules, which don’t automatically require lawyers in the Legislature to reveal their clients unless the legislator sees potential for conflict. State law also allows politicians wide discretion in how they spend campaign funds as long as they say the expenditure will further their career. Joyce, in fact, has never been sanctioned for an ethics violation, according to records of public discipline.

But Joyce agrees there are limits — and he argues forcefully that he has never exceeded them. The senator declined to answer questions directly, but his attorney, David H. Rich, said Joyce pays meticulous attention to the rules, seeking guidance from the Ethics Commission when he is in doubt.

“Whether acting as a legislator or as an attorney, Senator Joyce works hard and adheres to all ethical requirements,” Rich wrote in a 10-page response to Globe questions. “Most of the firm’s clients have no intersection with our state government at all” and have never even met Joyce.

Although Joyce used his law firm e-mail to contact regulators, Rich insisted that any contacts Joyce has had with regulators on behalf of Energi or anyone else dealt with routine administrative matters and were allowed under state law.

Advertisement

Rich said the 2014 graduation party for Joyce’s son, an event that drew several hundred guests to his home, was an example of Joyce’s “friend-raiser” events that combine the personal and the political.

‘Senator Joyce and his wife . . . are careful to pay personally for any expenses that have a personal benefit.’

David H. Rich, attorney for Brian Joyce 

“The campaign paid for only a portion of the food, drinks and supplies, such as paper goods,” Rich explained. “Senator Joyce and his wife . . . are careful to pay personally for any expenses that have a personal benefit.”

He also lambasted the Globe for what he called “misguided attacks on Senator Joyce’s character.”

Joyce has, however, taken steps as the Globe has raised questions. He increased the amount he paid for the sunglasses after the Globe questioned the bargain price. He removed a YouTube video in which he boasted of helping a current legal client obtain state funding after the Globe sent written questions about his work for the company.

He disclosed that he’s seeking funding for another client the day after the Globe asked about it. He asked to be taken off the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy after the Globe began questioning his ties to Energi.

But Pam Wilmot, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts, said there are enough questions about Joyce’s conduct that state regulators should investigate.

“Many of these scenarios raise significant questions about whether Senator Joyce violated the ethics and campaign finance laws and they deserve further investigation by the Ethics Commission and Campaign Finance Office,” Wilmot said. “Public employees need to be fully loyal to the Commonwealth and to the public interest and not representing paying private clients before public agencies.”

Ambitious in law, politics

Brian Joyce, 51, has always stood out for his ambition, rising from his first elected position as Milton parks commissioner in 1993 to become one of the most powerful politicians in the state Legislature. To get there, Joyce defeated a longtime Milton state representative who had defeated Joyce’s father for the same job in 1978.

He was an early backer of Senator Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst for Senate president, and Rosenberg this year made him an assistant majority leader as well as chairman of a committee that decides whether bills go forward to a vote. Rosenberg declined to comment about Joyce.

Joyce, who graduated third in his class at Suffolk Law School, was no less ambitious about his law practice, opening the Joyce Law Group office in Canton in 2007. He now lists 11 attorneys on his website with offices in three states, his success fueled by the growing number of cases coming from Energi and other clients.

And Joyce wants to grow, seeking to represent cities and towns. At the 2014 Massachusetts Municipal Association annual meeting, Joyce was the only elected official to have a booth promoting his business, handing out free pounds of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to attract potential clients. Joyce said he paid for the coffee.

By contrast, most of the Legislature’s 50 attorneys either work for tiny firms or practice on their own, a Globe review found. Fewer than 10, including Joyce, work for a firm with more than five attorneys, and only two others are an owner. Joyce is the managing partner of a practice that he says has almost 700 active cases.

The path to prosperity for lawyers in the Legislature is, however, fraught with ethical challenges, especially if legal clients have business with the state. Not only does that create a potential conflict in legislative votes on matters that overlap or impinge on client interests, but the law makes clear that legislators generally cannot contact state officials on behalf of private clients for pay.

Some lawyer-legislators give up their law practices when they become legislators out of concern about the potential for conflicts of interest.

“I didn’t know when a client’s financial interests might be affected by legislation,” said Daniel Winslow, who resigned a partnership in an international firm before becoming a state representative in 2011 to avoid possible conflicts when elected. “How could I know? The firm had hundreds of lawyers.”

Massachusetts legislator-lawyers do not have to disclose their clients to the state Ethics Commission, though 26 other states require it, at least to some degree. But they do have to disclose relationships that could give the appearance of a conflict of interest.

In the past five years, Joyce has reported potential conflicts regarding just three clients, including one regarding Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton that he filed April 8, the day after the Globe sent him written questions about his connection to the hospital where his wife was formerly a board member.

But Joyce has advocated publicly for other companies his law firm represents without disclosing the connection, raising questions about which role he’s playing when he speaks.

Joyce boasted on his local access cable television show in 2010 that he worked “hand and glove” with the Patrick administration to secure millions in state funding to keep the biotech company Organogenesis from moving out of state. Joyce’s firm began representing Organogenesis in 2013.

Joyce then posted the show on YouTube in 2014, claiming — incorrectly — that the company had doubled its workforce. Employment had barely budged at the time he taped the show and, by the end of 2014, it had actually declined. The mistake was significant because the company had promised to more than double employment in exchange for $7.4 million in state grants in 2009.

Joyce removed the video following Globe questions about Organogenesis, and his lawyer downplayed Joyce’s role in obtaining funds for the company.

“Senator Joyce has not obtained any state money for Organogenesis,” Rich wrote, stressing that other state officials made the funding decision. “Senator Joyce had nothing whatsoever to do with how those awards were granted.”

Joyce’s overlapping roles were again on display in his work for Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owner Carlos Andrade, who wanted to add a drive-through to his shop near the Blue Hills Reservation. In 2002, Joyce joined many neighbors in opposing the window, telling the Globe then that that part of Route 138 “has been problematic for some time. There’s really no room for expansion.”

But, after Andrade hired Joyce’s firm in 2007, lawyers from his office took the lead in gaining approval for the drive-through, saying a significant scaling back of the project, including a redesign of the window, had alleviated earlier problems.

In the Legislature, Joyce did not publicly disclose his business relationship with Andrade and other Dunkin’ Donuts franchise owners that he represented even when he was pushing a bill they strongly backed. However, Joyce did get a private, written opinion from the Ethics Commission that it would break no rules for him to file the bill, which would give franchise owners, generally, more protection in dealing with their parent companies.

Joyce, through Rich, said he filed the 2011 bill to help a gas station owner rather than Dunkin’ Donuts. Lawyer-legislators can back bills that help clients or themselves as long as the measure is “general” legislation that affects others as well.

However, the bill was a priority for Dunkin’ shop owners who met with Joyce on April 6, 2011, according to e-mails. They showed their appreciation 11 months later when they raised $9,000 for his campaign, prompting their lobbyist, Joseph A. Giannino, to describe the group as Joyce’s “cash cow.”

Going to bat for Energi

Joyce has become especially close to officials at Energi since befriending chief executive Brian McCarthy a few years ago. The company, which provides property and other types of insurance to companies in the energy industry across the United States and Canada, has assigned dozens of cases to Joyce’s firm, court records show. In many of the cases, Joyce’s firm defended energy companies insured by Energi, and Joyce’s website shows that he has hired numerous attorneys in the last three years who specialize in “insurance defense.”

Joyce declined to say whether he also owns stock in the firm, something a person with knowledge of the company’s private investors has indicated. Joyce attended a five-day conference in San Antonio last fall that the company said was intended for “shareholders, policyholders and brokers,” but Joyce’s attorney Rich said only that he “attended on behalf of his law firm.”

Under state rules, Joyce would have to disclose holdings valued at more than $1,000, which he has not done. The deadline for revealing 2014 stock purchases is this month.

Energi officials did not return calls asking about Joyce’s connection to the firm.

It’s clear that Joyce has gone to bat repeatedly for the company without publicly revealing that he is the company’s lawyer. He has spoken to at least two conferences sponsored by Energi where he is listed on the agenda only as a state legislator. He has repeatedly filed what he calls a “jobs” bill that would provide financing for commercial energy efficiency projects like the ones Energi insures. Energi enthusiastically supports the measure.

Behind the scenes, Joyce approached Murphy, the insurance commissioner, at least twice on behalf of Energi. Murphy’s exchange with an employee in September 2014 shows that Joyce had contacted the office about Energi previously.

“They had a similar request a month or so ago and [we] got them what they needed,” the employee wrote.

Joyce also arranged a meeting with Murphy for McCarthy, Joyce, and other Energi officials to discuss a dispute with an Ohio-based insurance company, which accused Energi of failing to pay $261,000 in overdue bills and requested a state investigation. After the June 3, 2013, session, e-mail records show, the Ohio company dropped its demands and the issue was settled, though it’s unclear what role the meeting played in the resolution.

Rich said the senator did nothing wrong. The Joyce Law Group “acts as legal counsel to Energi on its employment related matters and in environmental litigation,” Rich wrote.

Outside observers say officials take risks when they don’t clearly distinguish between official duties and private lives, whether in their campaign spending or business interests.

Daniel P. Haley, a lawyer who worked for former governor Mitt Romney, said lawyer-legislators face challenges, especially when their law work overlaps with Beacon Hill work.

“For the individual legislator, especially in the age of ubiquitous information, it’s essential to create and maintain a bright line between paid outside work and legislative advocacy,” he said.

Wilmot of Common Cause said it may be impossible for lawmakers to represent clients with state business, especially legislative leaders who wield enormous power over how state resources are expended.

“Lawyers have a fiduciary duty to be zealous advocates for their clients, but they also owe the same duty to the Commonwealth. The two just don’t mix.”

Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.