Boston philanthropist Amos Hostetter’s foundation paid for two state environmental officials to join a group traveling to Europe to study climate change at the same time their agency was reviewing a waterfront hotel project he was fighting to stop.
Hostetter, who accompanied the group, said he had no role in selecting who went on the six-day trip to the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden in June 2016.
The 80-year-old billionaire also said there was no connection between his efforts to block the hotel and the $2 million in undisclosed donations he made in the several months afterward toward a ballot initiative in which Governor Charlie Baker was heavily invested.
The Baker administration’s Department of Environmental Affairs rejected the hotel project in September 2016, three months after the tour. Hostetter’s first $1 million contribution to a Baker-backed pro-charter school ballot question was made in July 2016; the second $1 million, in October 2016. Hostetter, who was an early entrepreneur in the cable television industry, has been an advocate for charter schools in the past but has no public record of donating such a huge amount to the cause.
No authorities have suggested Hostetter did anything wrong. But he is a prime example of how the appearance of conflicts of interest can arise for both private citizens and government officials when an individual involved in civic causes and local development is also a big political donor.
“I can assure you that this is strictly coincidental,’’ Hostetter told the Globe.
The $1.7 billion Barr Foundation, created by Hostetter and his wife, Barbara, has given millions of dollars over the years to the city and advocacy groups to protect Boston Harbor, promote open space, and combat climate change.
It has at times frustrated developers and city planners with its efforts to curb major development projects on or near the waterfront, including Don Chiofaro’s complex near the New England Aquarium.
Meanwhile, Hostetter is using his company, The Pilot House, to pay for most of the opposition to the hotel, which has been proposed on Lewis Wharf, next to his office.
Hostetter, commenting through e-mails, said he left the decisions on who participated in the June 2016 European trip to the Green Ribbon Commission, a nonprofit focused on climate change funded by Barr, other foundations, and companies. Hostetter is cochairman of the commission, whose other members include Mayor Martin J. Walsh, business executives, and top leaders from Harvard, MIT, and Northeastern University.
With money from Hostetter’s foundations and others, the commission has organized similar trips that have presented Boston’s plans for “urban sustainability” to forums in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, and a series of American cities.
In addition to the state employees, the trip in June of last year also included three city officials — two chief environmental aides to Walsh and the Boston Planning & Development Agency’s director of planning — all of whom oversee development issues such as the one Hostetter opposed. The hotel plan has not yet come before the city.
Ned Bartlett, the state undersecretary for energy and environmental affairs, and assistant secretary Daniel Sieger were among the group of 22 who traveled with Hostetter to study how certain countries were deploying efforts to achieve carbon neutrality and long-term climate preparedness.
“Professional staff planned the GRC trip, and its timing was totally unrelated to the administrative process underway at DEP,’’ Hostetter said.
He said the presence of Bartlett and Sieger on the trip seemed a natural fit “given that the learning tour focused on climate and energy issues.”
Neither Bartlett, who resigned his state position several months ago for the private sector, nor Sieger returned calls or e-mails seeking comment. They did follow state ethics regulations by filing disclosures about the trip with Energy and Environmental Secretary Matthew Beaton, but they did not mention in those documents Hostetter’s role in financing the tour.
Bartlett and Sieger stated that the source of the funding was the Green Ribbon Commission. Beaton’s office did not explain why the two did not list Hostetter’s Barr Foundation as the source of the funding, even though that information was included in the invitation, and declined to comment further on the trip. Those documents reveal the cost of the trip was $5,331 for each.
The three members of Walsh’s administration traveling with the group were: the mayor’s environmental chief, Austin Blackmon (also a member of the Green Ribbon Commission); the city’s environmental commissioner, Carl Spector; and the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s planning director, Sara Myerson.
The three, who would have significant oversight over and input into the city’s permitting of the hotel project if it had received DEP approval, filed disclosure reports. All three cited the commission as the trip’s sponsor; Blackmon and Myerson cited the Barr Foundation as a funder of the tour, while Spector did not. However, Myerson filed her disclosure four months after the trip — days after the planning agency received a public records request about the trip from an unknown party. She did not respond to a Globe e-mail seeking comment.
Blackmon and Specter also declined to comment, according to Walsh spokeswoman Laura Oggeri.
Others on the trip included several city and state elected officials — including Senate President Stan Rosenberg and City Council President Michelle Wu — but none of whom had any direct involvement with the permitting of the hotel project.
At the same time as the six-day Europe trip, Hostetter was paying the Beacon Strategies Group $48,000 to organize a grass-roots movement that would bang on the doors of City Hall offices with petitions, leaflet the North End neighborhood, and call city officials to neighborhood meetings, all aimed at pressuring the Walsh administration to reject the project.
The city’s permitting process never officially got off the ground because the project stalled once the DEP announced its final rejection of the hotel plan in June 2017. A scaled-back version is under consideration by the developers.
Hostetter and his wife, both of whom have given almost exclusively to Democrats in the recent past, each made $1,000 donations to Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito in July 2015, the month after a developer, JW Capital Partners, proposed the 300-room hotel project.
Hostetter’s donations to the charter campaign were not revealed until this September, when state campaign finance regulators announced it would fine the New York-based Families for Excellent Schools’ campaign committee $426,466 for violating campaign laws by funneling the $15 million to the pro-charter ballot effort without revealing the donors. The committee was also forced to list its contributors.
Hostetter said that neither Baker nor his political aides directly solicited his $2.025 million in contributions to the charter schools campaign. Hostetter said via e-mail that he understood the donations would not be disclosed.
The 2016 ballot question was a major push organized by Baker and pro-charter school forces. It received less than 40 percent of the vote.Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.