Metro

Dispute over state senator’s dirty laundry raises questions

Senator Brian Joyce used Woodlawn dry cleaners in Randolph for a decade.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Senator Brian Joyce used Woodlawn dry cleaners in Randolph for a decade.

RANDOLPH — The deal began ever so casually, Jerry Richman recalled. Brian Joyce visited Richman’s dry cleaning shop when he was first running for state Senate back in 1997, and the eager-to-please businessman spontaneously offered to clean Joyce’s clothes for free.

Richman said there was no formal agreement and he didn’t set a time limit. The shop owner, then president of the local chamber of commerce, said he just liked the idea of befriending an up-and-coming politician who was fond of saying, “When you have me for a friend, you have a friend for life.”

Richman says now that he had no idea then just how fully Joyce would embrace the offer.

Advertisement

For the next decade, Senator Joyce or his legislative aide brought his suits, his family’s clothes, and sometimes his aide’s clothes to Woodlawn Cleaners almost every week to collect on Richman’s offer, say Richman, his son, and two former longtime employees. The father and son estimate that Joyce typically brought in $50 to $100 worth of dry cleaning each time, representing tens of thousands of dollars in uncompensated services.

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

“Everybody knew,” said Wendy Hess, Woodlawn’s assistant manager when Jerry Richman sold the business in 2008. “Anybody who went into the computer knew Senator Joyce got clothing cleaned for free.”

Joyce, a Milton Democrat who stepped down as assistant majority leader last year amid a continuing ethics investigation, declined to answer questions about his dry cleaning. However, Joyce’s attorneys insist that the free dry cleaning was not a gift but Richman’s way of paying for Joyce’s legal services over the years.

“The amount of unpaid legal services dwarfs any dry cleaning services given in exchange,” said Joyce’s attorney, David H. Rich, in a written statement to the Globe. Rich’s law firm sent Richman a letter last week listing 15 matters dating back to 2003 on which Joyce claims to have represented Richman.

Richman acknowledges that Joyce gave him some discounted legal services — but only after Joyce had been getting free dry cleaning for at least six years.

Advertisement

And Richman notes that Joyce was paid for much of his legal work, including more than $140,000 from Richman’s insurance companies, a $5,000 retainer fee paid by Richman, and another $23,192 Joyce’s firm kept from insurance company payments to Richman.

Several ethics experts, told of Joyce’s dry cleaning deal, condemned such an arrangement, saying that public officials are generally not supposed to accept anything worth $50 or more. Even if Joyce traded legal services for the dry cleaning, they said, he would have to keep records to show that he did not receive a net benefit of $50 or more.

Joyce has acknowledged there is no written record of the dry-cleaning-for-legal services arrangement and he cannot remember when it began. One document shows he waived $12,250 in legal fees for Richman in 2007.

Good government advocates said that, assuming Richman’s account is accurate, Joyce appears to have abused his position. Although the statute of limitations ran out last year for any action by the state ethics commission, they said that should not protect Joyce from public scrutiny.

“The fact that the statute of limitations has run means he’s gotten away with it on a certain level. But it doesn’t mean in the court of public opinion he should be exonerated,” said Jeanne Kempthorne, a former federal prosecutor and member of the state ethics commission who is now co-chair of the board of Common Cause Massachusetts. “It’s beyond the pale.”

Advertisement

Former US attorney Michael Sullivan said the alleged free laundry service “raises a lot of red flags” for him, too.

“It’s no different than a law enforcement officer taking free dinners on their beat,” Sullivan explained. “At one time, it was a practice, but all police departments decades ago told police officers it’s improper and shouldn’t be done — even if there is no expectation of a quid pro quo.”

If, as Joyce asserts, he traded dry cleaning for legal services, Sullivan added, he would have had to report the value of the services on his taxes.

Joyce is already under investigation by both the ethics commission and the Office of Campaign and Political Finance for possible violations of the state’s conflict of interest and campaign finance laws, according to his Senate colleagues.

Though the ethics commission hasn’t yet released details of its investigation, Joyce has come under fire for accepting discounts and free goods. In late 2014, he obtained 40 pairs of $234 sunglasses as holiday gifts for his colleagues but didn’t pay until the Globe asked about them. Even then, he paid only $3,641, mostly from campaign funds, instead of the full price, more than $11,000.

Joyce drew attention from campaign finance regulators after he charged his campaign fund $3,400 to pay for his son’s high school graduation party in 2014. Joyce justified the expense to the Globe by arguing that the party was also a campaign event, though people who were there said there were no political speeches or posters.

Joyce also faces allegations that he uses his position as state senator to attract business for his Canton law practice. Officials from a Philadelphia-based solar energy company said they were stunned in 2012 when they came to Joyce for help on a legislative issue and he asked the company, Tecta Solar, to let his firm represent it on Massachusetts projects, including one in his district.

“It was suggested we could retain him, but we never pursued it. It was certainly not our intent and it was twisted in a completely different direction,’’ said Samir Dube, who was then the company’s managing director.

Joyce’s lawyer, Rich, said Joyce could not discuss his meeting with Tecta without a waiver of what he called a lawyer-client privilege with the company.

Jerry Richman, now retired, said the free dry cleaning arrangement with Joyce began when Richman was active in civic affairs — president of the local chamber of commerce and other business groups — while Joyce was looking to move up from state representative to senator. Something about Joyce’s drive and outgoing personality attracted Richman, who squired him around and hung Joyce signs in his stores.

He chauffeured him during the town’s Independence Day parade in one of his vintage Lincolns.

Richman said his offer of free dry cleaning to Joyce was sincere, but he had no idea that Joyce would so completely take advantage. After all, Woodlawn was more than seven miles from Joyce’s Milton home. Richman’s son, Harry, said they under-estimated Joyce’s fondness for free things.

“There was nothing in writing. But there was certainly a reason why Brian Joyce was coming all the way to Randolph to get his cleaning done when there were six or seven dry cleaners close to his home,” said Harry Richman, who said he was working in the shop in the late 1990s when the dry cleaning deal with Joyce began.

Wendy Hess, the former assistant manager, also thought that Joyce was exploiting Jerry Richman’s generosity — and taking it for granted.

“He was borderline nasty,” Hess recalled. “Once in a while I said, ‘You can do it with a smile.’ You don’t get to be rude because you’re a senator. If people are giving you a service for free — if someone hands me something for nothing, I give a big smile.”

Hess said that, over the years, Joyce increased the amount of dry cleaning he brought to the shop, including periods when the senator lost weight and Richman had his tailor take in his suits for free.

Joyce “got real bold,” said Hess. “It was hard to take because you knew he was taking advantage of Jerry, especially when he dumped (his legislative aide’s) stuff off.”

Eventually, Jerry Richman said, he told Joyce that he could no longer clean his legislative aide’s clothes for free, though he says he still gave her a 30 percent discount. “It was out of control,” Richman recalled.

But Joyce’s lawyer and his publicist say that neither Joyce nor his aide received inappropriate gifts from Richman.

“I personally confirmed with (Joyce’s legislative aide) that at no time did she receive free dry cleaning from Jerry Richman,” Rich wrote.

Joyce did accept free dry cleaning, attorney Rich said, but only in exchange for repeatedly representing Richman on legal issues at no charge.

“This exchange of services was explicitly discussed by Brian and Mr. Richman, who claimed to not have money to pay for legal fees,” said Joyce’s publicist, Tara Frier, in a statement.

And, late on Monday, Frier said that Joyce had discovered a personal check for $8 written in 1998 to another dry cleaner, suggesting that Joyce may not have been a customer of Richman’s shop in those days.

But Jerry Richman and his son clearly recall giving Joyce free dry cleaning in the late 1990s, long before Joyce did legal work for Jerry Richman.

Jerry Richman also said many of the legal matters described in the recent letter from Joyce’s lawyers were either minor issues, such as reviewing documents, or cases in which Joyce received payment from Richman’s insurance companies.

And, in the most significant case, Richman said he was deeply disappointed in Joyce’s work, for which Joyce’s firm was paid more than $140,000 by Richman’s insurance companies. The dry cleaner ended up having to pay tens of thousands of dollars to settle a lawsuit alleging that chemicals from his shop had contaminated a neighboring business.

“He made it look like he was doing me a favor,” said Jerry Richman. But according to legal papers in the case, Joyce’s firm waited too long to submit evidence that the contamination could have come from another dry cleaner and the judge refused to let his lawyers bring the other cleaner into the case.

So Joyce’s firm advised Richman to settle — out of his own pocket, Richman said.

Rich, Joyce’s attorney, said he couldn’t go into details of the case without a written waiver of client confidentiality from Jerry Richman. Generally, he wrote, “The result obtained and the work performed by Senator Joyce’s law firm for Mr. Richman was outstanding. “

Richman finally sold the dry cleaning business in 2008, using Joyce as his attorney. When he drafted the sales agreement for Richman, Joyce tried to extend his deal, according to the current owner.

“He wrote that he would get free dry cleaning for himself as long as I owned the place. I just crossed it out,” said the owner, who asked not to be identified to avoid getting into a public controversy.

Rich acknowledged that continued free dry-cleaning for Joyce was written into the sale documents, but he said it was Richman’s idea to avoid paying Joyce’s fees. Richman disputed the lawyer’s claim.

The new owner’s refusal to continue the dry cleaning deal left dwindling opportunities for the senator to get his laundry cleaned for free. The last week he was in business in 2008, Richman said, Joyce dropped off a tremendous bundle of items.

“He brought in everything but his underwear,” Richman said.

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