How do you get the mayor of Boston to pose for a promotional photo with a 400-pound seal?
If you're the New England Aquarium, you get help from your paid consultant, Michael Goldman, to arrange a special grip-and-grin event, where Mayor Martin J. Walsh, last April, pressed the flesh with a flipper.
It's little surprise the mayor went along. O'Neil/Goldman Group, the political firm founded by Goldman and his partner, Walsh campaign architect Matthew O'Neil, is not just close to the new administration — it has acted like part of it, according to more than a thousand city e-mails obtained through public records requests.
Goldman has set up media interviews for Walsh, consulted with city officials about the release of public records, orchestrated the rollout of a major municipal labor contract, and written speeches for the mayor — all for free. O'Neil — a political strategist with so much affection for Walsh he says he would "die for the guy" — says he offers his skills and experience to the mayor as a "friend."
At the same time, though, the firm lobbies Walsh's City Hall on behalf of corporate clients who need things from the administration — not just photo-ops with blubbery marine mammals, but permits and administration support on development projects worth millions of dollars. Since Walsh's election, the consultants' roster of clients has, at times, included Comcast, Microsoft, Clear Channel, Delaware North, Zipcar, and at least eight developers, including Equity Residential, the company behind a controversial West End tower approved this month.
O'Neil/Goldman has secured audiences with top city officials so clients can make a range of sales pitches — from portfolio monitoring at the retirement board to software designed to speed police response to a school shooter. Both consultants have spoken to Walsh personally about clients or projects they represent, and vigorously defend their mix of paid and unpaid dealings with the mayor and the city.
Some, however, view their work with concern.
The arrangement "certainly raises questions about a possible conflict of interest for O'Neil and Goldman," said Jordan Libowitz of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan organization that promotes accountability in public life. "When it comes to the government, even the appearance of impropriety is a problem."
Walsh, in an interview, angrily rejected any suggestion that his administration's interactions with O'Neil and Goldman could pose a conflict.
"It's a gotcha story. That's what you are trying to do here," Walsh said. "Should people be penalized for their relationship with the mayor of Boston? I don't think that's fair."
O'Neil and Goldman are bold about promoting their relationship with the mayor — an important credential in the influence business.
Goldman's biography on the company website says he "continues to work without compensation as an outside adviser" to Walsh and other elected officials. O'Neil was even more to the point: His bio featured a photo of him with an arm around a smiling Marty Walsh. The photo was removed after the Globe began reporting for this story; O'Neil says it just wasn't a good picture.
State law generally forbids city employees from taking money to represent clients before the administration. The definition of "municipal employee" covers people "performing services for" a community, "whether by election, appointment, contract of hire or engagement" — and whether they are paid or serve for free.
O'Neil says his only role with Walsh is as a friend. Goldman said his unpaid work is limited to matters related to Walsh's political career.
"In no way, shape, or manner can or should either of us be considered municipal employees since neither of us provides 'services to the city,' " the consultants said in an e-mailed statement. "As the State Ethics Commission has previously stated, an individual providing informal advisory functions, and, in particular, providing outside viewpoints, is not a municipal employee."
But Gregory Sullivan, former state inspector general and the research director at the conservative think tank Pioneer Institute, said the "arrangement undermines the safeguards that prevent city employees from representing clients with business before the city. The conflict of interest is not lessened by their not accepting city pay for their work; they are getting paid indirectly, by access and influence."
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, agrees the arrangement "does raise questions under the conflict law."
The city hall e-mail trail shows how the firm has pivoted between adviser and paid advocate.
Goldman the unpaid adviser helped announce the hiring of Jascha Franklin-Hodge as the city's chief information officer. Chief of staff Dan Koh sent marching orders to Goldman and former Walsh press secretary Kate Norton. "Michael/Kate, can you hop on the phone with Jascha this week to discuss the best rollout strategy?" Koh wrote.
Goldman also worked intimately with city officials when Walsh's top education adviser left the administration, according to e-mails. And Goldman was among those Norton consulted in 2014, for advice dealing with a Globe reporter's request for city hiring data.
"Is there a legal reason why I shouldn't give this data to him?" she asked.
"Let's get this [off] of our plate," Goldman responded.
In June 2014, Goldman organized a meeting in the mayor's office with the Boston Herald editorial board, the e-mails show. Before that meeting, Samuel Chambers, a Walsh assistant, wrote to Goldman to offer help: "Do you need or require anything for the meeting?"
"Cookies, coffee, soda," Goldman wrote back.
Five months later, though, Goldman dealt with administration officials from the other side of the table — as a paid representative for Zipcar, the car-sharing company. Goldman joined Zipcar's president at a meeting with administration officials on Nov. 10, 2014, in the Eagle Room, which adjoins the mayor's office in City Hall. "Zipcar is my client," Goldman said. "I'm there as a Zipcar person."
Walsh did not attend the meeting, but Goldman said he did make a separate pitch to the mayor. "I told him that I thought what they were putting on the table was worth looking at by the traffic department," Goldman said, in an interview. "He agreed and they did. But I never sat in any traffic department meetings."
It was O'Neil who handled the traffic department. E-mails show he met with at least three city transportation officials. O'Neil said "to the best of my recollection" the meetings were about Zipcar. "I don't know anybody else I would be talking to them about," he said.
Two months after the Eagle Room summit, the city announced it was launching a pilot program that let Zipcar and another car-sharing services use 80 of the city's public parking spaces. Walsh said the city had been considering the initiative long before he took office.
It is a long tradition in Boston for political consultants to help a candidate into office and then lobby the new administration. In 1995, at nearly the same juncture in then-mayor Thomas M. Menino's tenure, the Globe published a front-page article about Menino pals Edward F. Jesser and Robert Walsh. Their activities raised "questions about how the mayor should deal with longtime friends who either have business pending with the city or represent clients dealing with the city," the Globe wrote at the time.
O'Neil, 61, was formerly chief of staff for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. In 2001, the State Ethics Commission concluded that O'Neil had illegally bought a price-restricted condo that his agency had reserved for low-income buyers. He resigned in a scandal that also cost the agency director his job. O'Neil went on to work as a lobbyist and consultant to powerful Democrats. A decade before Walsh ran for mayor, O'Neil said, he began meeting with the future candidate to plot a bid for City Hall.
At 66, Goldman is a longtime Democratic political consultant who dates back to Governor Michael Dukakis's administration. Goldman said Walsh asked him to join his mayoral campaign in March 2013 as a "hired gun."
The two men jointly launched their company shortly after the mayor took the oath of office, signing a lease in April 2014 for space that had been part of Walsh's campaign office. In addition to their partnership, O'Neil and Goldman also maintain their own separate consulting businesses with their own clients.
"I had a successful business before Marty Walsh," O'Neil said. "I'll have a successful business after Marty Walsh."
For the aquarium, Goldman was hired to underscore the organization's concerns about a proposed high-rise redevelopment on the Harbor Garage site. On Nov. 21, 2014, an aquarium executive wrote a top Walsh official to express thanks for meeting with Aquarium executives. "It is important that we have the mayor as our guardian during this process," P. Eric Krauss wrote in an e-mail copied to Goldman.
The very next day, Nov. 22, Goldman was back to being a mayoral adviser, consulting by e-mail with Koh on another significant waterfront development proposal, at the James Hook site, a short walk down Atlantic Avenue from the Harbor Garage. In that case, Dukakis had written Koh and Goldman to express his concerns that a development at the site could block the eventual path of a rail line linking North and South stations.
"I'll call MJW to talk about this," Goldman wrote to Koh, referring to Walsh.
Aquarium media relations director Tony LaCasse said the facility retained Goldman for portions of 2014 and 2015 as a "media and strategy consultant." Goldman introduced aquarium executives to several city leaders, including Koh, economic development chief John Barros, BRA director Brian Golden, former planning chief Kairos Shen, and former Walsh chief of operations Joe Rull, he said.
Unlike many prominent US cities, Boston lacks any meaningful rules to publicly compel municipal lobbyists to disclose their clients or list their contacts with the city officials they are trying to influence. Walsh this month proposed rules that would force lobbyists to register with the city and report their activities. He did so after a Globe story recounting the sudden rise of a friend of the city's top lawyer, from comparative unknown to an active and influential city hall player. The registration proposal is pending before the City Council. It would also need approval from state lawmakers.
The Walsh administration released hundreds of e-mails in response to the Globe request but withheld two communications between city officials and O'Neil under an exemption in the public records law for documents related to the ongoing deliberative processes of policy makers.
Other e-mails show O'Neil had direct contact with at least 18 city Cabinet chiefs and department heads, some of whom worked for him on Walsh's campaign. The interactions extended from the city's cable office to Walsh's chief of policy, from permits at the Inspectional Service Department to product pitches in the Department of Innovation & Technology.
O'Neil helped a friend get a Charlestown street corner named in honor of his father, a boxer named Francesco "Kid" Fratalia. He represented a landlord who needed to renegotiate a lease with the administration for a building used by the city in Jamaica Plain.
A note sent March 11, 2014, to the private e-mail ofBarros, the economic development chief, underscored the ease of O'Neil's access:
"Mr. Cabinet Secretary," O'Neil wrote. "How the hell are you?"
O'Neil described it as a favor "for a friend of mine" when he persuaded Barros to give a speech to the quarterly meeting of the National Electrical Contractors Association.
Goldman said clients just want the opportunity to be heard by decision-makers.
"If the aquarium calls up and asks for an appointment with the mayor, they're going to get it," he said. "They're going to get it whether Michael Goldman is there or got hit by a bus three weeks ago."