Residents of a remote section of North Randolph, who had been fighting for years to keep apartment buildings out of their quiet neighborhood, believed they had a friend in their state senator, Brian A. Joyce.
When they showed up in force at a public meeting to oppose a 250-unit complex first proposed in 2009, the Milton Democrat was there — making it clear that he, too, was dead set against the apartment project for the adjacent industrial area known as Pacella Park, according to one of the residents.
But, after battling the plan for three years, the neighbors received disturbing news: Joyce, an attorney, was going to work for the developer, the Dolben Company of Woburn.
Now, federal prosecutors and the FBI are investigating why the Dolben Company hired the Joyce Law Group — paying the law firm $250,000 — when the company already had attorneys of its own, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation.
Investigators are focusing on allegations that Joyce told Dolben officials the project would go smoothly if they retained the Joyce Law Group, and then aggressively opposed it when they rebuffed him, according to the two people familiar with the case.
After Dolben hired Joyce, he worked behind the scenes to advance the project, according to e-mails and interviews.
The US attorney’s interest in the $30 million to $40 million project is part of a sweeping investigation of Joyce and whether he used his public office to advance his private business interests during his 20-year legislative career.
In February, FBI agents raided Joyce’s Canton law office, seizing files and computers, while prosecutors have sent subpoenas for more documents to officials in several towns Joyce represents, including Randolph.
“Senator Joyce repeats that he believes he has done nothing wrong,” Joyce’s attorney, Howard M. Cooper, said in an e-mailed statement. “Senator Joyce sought and received guidance from the State Ethics Commission on numerous occasions concerning his private business activities and followed that advice.”
Cooper complained about leaks of information, given that the federal investigation is supposed to be confidential to protect the reputations of people under scrutiny. “The real story here is whether this critical secrecy rule is being violated and, if so, by whom,” Cooper said.
Town officials, meanwhile, defended their actions and downplayed Joyce’s influence on their decision to approve the Pacella Park project.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to review proposals based on their impacts and benefits to the town as a whole and not just individual neighborhoods,” Randolph town manager David Murphy said in an e-mailed statement.
Joyce did file a disclosure letter with the Randolph town clerk in November 2011 saying his firm had been engaged by Dolben. But he played little public role after he was hired, and opponents said they had no idea Joyce was working for the developer until nearly a year later.
“Our neighborhood was 100 percent against it,” said Joseph LaMarre, a leader of the opposition. “The officials would say, ‘I’m for the people,’ but you sensed it was rigged along the way.”
Dolben officials initially resisted Joyce’s overtures, saying they already had their own lawyers, whom they eventually paid $80,000, according to one of the people familiar with the investigation.
In 2013, about two years after the company hired Joyce, Dolben won a key zoning change that allowed the project to move forward.
As a state senator, Joyce has no direct say over local zoning decisions, but legislators are influential figures with municipal officials who rely on them for help obtaining grants and other government assistance.
Dolben officials declined to comment for this report.
If prosecutors find that Joyce pressured Dolben to hire his law firm, he could face criminal charges that carry lengthy prison sentences, according to legal experts. Joyce has been under investigation before, but, until now, he has been accused of violations of campaign finance or state ethics laws, relatively minor offenses that carry only civil fines.
The subpoena to Randolph officials, obtained by the Globe, asks for all documents that make reference to Joyce, his Senate staff, or law firm. The subpoena also asked for all documents related to the Dolben project.
Joyce has long had close ties to Randolph officials and he got legal work from the town — even as controversy about his potential conflicts of interest became public.
As recently as February, the town hired Joyce to do work on a possible solar project at a landfill. And, in April 2015, the town negotiated a solar credit deal brokered by a client of Joyce who also worked with him on a solar projects in other towns.
Federal prosecutors are also looking at a $1 million real estate commission Joyce received on the sale of a 384-unit apartment complex in Randolph, according to two people familiar with the transaction. They said Joyce collected the enormous fee, which has not been publicly reported, from Beacon Communities when it bought Presidential Acres in 2007.
The Randolph Town Meeting later agreed to rezone the parcel, allowing Beacon to expand the complex, which it renamed Rosemont Square. Though Joyce’s role in the zoning change is unclear, he acted as Beacon’s local attorney on other matters related to Rosemont, according to two people with knowledge of Joyce’s work.
A Beacon Communities spokesman declined to comment.
At Pacella Park, opponents of the apartment complex say they did not learn until fall 2012 that Joyce had gone to work for the developer. And e-mails from the time, obtained by the Globe, show they were outraged.
“If in fact our state senator Brian Joyce is working for Drew Dolben, what a disgrace and FRAUD he is,” LaMarre wrote on Sept. 17, 2012, to another project opponent.
Though Joyce played little public role on the project, e-mails state that he was working behind the scenes to pave the way for the apartment complex.
In March 2013, on Joyce’s recommendation, Randolph hired April Anderson Lamoureux, a former Patrick administration official, to write an independent report on the best use of the 13-acre Pacella Park site. Her work was paid for by the land owner, records show, though that was never publicly disclosed.
The resulting 14-page report concluded that the area should be rezoned “to allow for multifamily residential development” — exactly what the developer, Dolben, was proposing.
Shortly before Lamoreux’s public presentation of her conclusions in May 2013, Joyce contacted her by e-mail, urging her to advocate for the zoning change from industrial to multifamily housing that Dolben needed to build the apartments.
“Nobody wants to step up and take a vote that may disappoint a half-dozen neighbors who really would not be affected,” Joyce wrote Lamoureux in an e-mail dated April 9, 2013. “The only way this works is if you are very convincing in your presentation that the only possibility for future economic growth is to change the zoning. . . . Bottom line, you need to be very convincing, as I know you will be.”
Lamoureux defended her reports and said she was not swayed by Joyce or anyone else. Minutes of the meeting show that she barely mentioned the zoning change that Dolben wanted — and was approved in December 2013.
“I have expertise in land-use planning and economic development and I’m proud of and stand by all of my work for the town of Randolph,” said Lamoureux.
Town officials insist they were listening to the critics all along, looking for ways to make the project more palatable to them.
“We worked with the neighbors for close to four years to incorporate their comments and address any concerns before Town Council approval of the project,” the town manager, Murphy, said in his written statement.
“The 240 new units will add to our tax base and improve our local economy, especially for the North Randolph business district that was decimated by the departure of Dunkin’ Donuts corporate headquarters,’’ Murphy said. “This project is estimated at a $40 million investment in our local economy.”
Residents who opposed the Dolben project say they feel somewhat vindicated by the federal investigation, but still believe their neighborhood is facing a fundamental change in its peaceful character.
“It was devastating to us — what we went through,” said one resident who has moved out but still could barely speak about the experience. “We’ve tried to put it behind us. Talking about it now, I’m becoming angry again.”