Federal prosecutors are looking at state Senator Brian A. Joyce’s involvement in a massive solar project at Stonehill College in Easton as part of a wide-ranging investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing by the Milton Democrat, according to two people with direct knowledge of the probe.
Joyce, whose law office was raided by FBI agents last week, represented Stonehill and the company that recently installed about 9,000 solar panels at the college, according to legal documents filed with state regulators. Meanwhile, as a state senator, Joyce pushed legislation to make it easier for clean energy projects like Stonehill’s to connect to electric utilities’ power lines.
US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office convened a grand jury to hear evidence about Joyce’s conduct, according to four people who received subpoenas to appear before or bring documents to the panel.
Joyce, who this week announced he would not run for reelection, has denied he ever used his public position for personal gain or did anything wrong. On Wednesday, his attorney declined to answer questions about the Stonehill project, saying that Joyce is a victim of a “media circus” that is airing unproven charges.
“The apparent improper leak by law enforcement of what is supposed to be a secret investigation has resulted in a media circus which has included unasserted, let alone unproven, allegations of wrongdoing,” said Howard M. Cooper in a statement. “Senator Joyce has not been charged with any violation of any law, by any authority, in any court or any forum, and he will not participate in this media circus except to repeat that he believes he has done nothing wrong.”
A spokesman for Stonehill College did not return several phone calls and messages seeking comment.
Joyce has repeatedly drawn scrutiny for blurring the lines between his public duties and his private affairs. The state Ethics Commission is investigating whether Joyce improperly lobbied state insurance regulators on behalf of another private law client, Energi of Peabody, according to Joyce’s Senate colleagues.
Earlier this year, Joyce agreed to pay nearly $5,000 to settle issues related to his use of $3,367 in campaign funds to pay for his son’s high school graduation party in 2014.
Specialists in ethics law say that lawmakers are allowed to represent private law clients while in office — and several Massachusetts legislators do. But they have to be careful to avoid even the appearance that their private business is influencing their votes or that they are using their clout as a legislator to secretly advance their law practice.
“You’re allowed to represent paying clients,” explained Stephen Huggard, a former head of the US attorney’s public corruption unit and now a lawyer at the private firm Locke Lord. “What you’re not allowed to do is take anything that influences your vote or receive any benefit that causes you to act differently than you might otherwise have acted.”
The federal grand jury is looking into a variety of potential abuses, according to people with firsthand knowledge, including Joyce’s receipt of free dry cleaning services from a business in his district. The dozen or so FBI agents who raided Joyce’s law office last week carted off dozens of files, according to eyewitnesses.
The grand jury has begun issuing subpoenas calling for other people and companies to provide documents or appear before them. Jerry Richman, the former Randolph dry cleaner who says he cleaned Joyce’s clothes for free for more than a decade, has received a subpoena to testify, according to a person with direct knowledge.
Milton town officials also have been subpoenaed for records related to the 2013 sale of the Milton’s Women’s Club to a private developer, who built three houses on the Randolph Avenue property, according to a town official who has seen the subpoena. Joyce’s role in the project is unclear, though the developer is a longtime donor to his campaign.
At Stonehill College, Joyce represented both the school and the solar power developer, a Hopkinton-based company called Solect, in sometimes-testy negotiations with National Grid to connect a planned 15-acre field of solar panels to National Grid’s power system. Stonehill estimated the project could save the school an estimated $3.2 million over 15 years, according to information on Joyce Law Firm’s website.
But, to get those savings, Stonehill wanted to wire the electricity directly to the school instead of distributing it across the power grid, something that National Grid opposed. The utility said the approach would require the construction of costly power lines from the solar panels, across a road, to the school.
Faced with the opposition, Joyce Law Group “had to take a more aggressive approach with National Grid,” according to the firm’s website.
Joyce filed a brief with the state Department of Public Utilities in March 2013, arguing that it was not a significant problem to connect panels on one side of Route 138 to Stonehill College on the other side.
State regulators ultimately did not make a ruling, urging the two sides to negotiate a deal.
But, as Joyce was sparring with National Grid, in his other job as a state senator, he filed legislation that would have weakened utilities’ exclusive rights to supply power in their service areas. A measure, filed in January 2013, would have allowed clean energy producers such as Stonehill easier access to the power system even if the utility objected. He filed similar legislation in 2014.
The state’s utilities, including National Grid, opposed the measureand it never advanced in the Legislature.
One state official said the bills filed by Joyce appeared to give him leverage in his negotiations over the Stonehill project by threatening National Grid’s control over its service area, known as franchise rights.
“Franchise rights are the gold standard,” said one state official. Electric utilities “will do anything not to give them up.”
In the end, National Grid agreed to connect the solar project directly to Stonehill College as the school had requested, according to documents filed with the Department of Public Utilities.
The Globe sent questions about the project to Joyce’s spokeswoman and attorneys, but they declined to answer.
Milton Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.