On a Tuesday morning in May 2017, the city Zoning Board of Appeal shot down a developer’s request for more time to build luxury condos on the site of an old warehouse in South Boston, potentially dooming a project that was more than four years in the making.
Two weeks later, the matter was somehow back before the board. This time, the project was allowed to move forward, a vote that federal prosecutors say was worth a half-million dollars — and cost the developer $50,000 in bribes.
What happened at — and in between — those meetings is at the center of a federal bribery case engulfing City Hall. It also raises questions about Boston’s often-opaque system of permitting real estate construction, and prompted Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Thursday to order a full review of the zoning board and how it functions.
The main city permit for the project on H Street in South Boston had expired in January 2017. Four months later, developer Steve Turner applied to have it extended. The request was scheduled for the May 9, 2017, meeting, but neither Turner nor his representatives appeared to make their case.
Instead, a video recording of the May 9 meeting shows a zoning board attorney saying John Lynch, the longtime City Hall employee who has since admitted to taking a $50,000 bribe, had told the attorney in the hallway that Turner could not attend the meeting. At the time Lynch worked for the Boston Planning & Development Agency managing city-owned buildings, and it’s not clear why he would be conveying information to the zoning board on a private project.
After learning that the developer would not be present, zoning board chairwoman Christine Araujo moved to reject the request for the permit extension, noting it had already been extended once, and by then had been expired by four months. Her motion to deny the extension was approved by a voice vote of a majority of the board. And while a precise tally was not available, in the video Araujo appeared to be joined by board member Mark Fortune and at least one of three other board members: Bruce Bickerstaff, Peter Chin, and Mark Erlich.
One member, Craig Galvin, a real estate agent from Dorchester, voted against the denial.
Two weeks later on May 23, Turner’s request for an extension resurfaced on the zoning board’s agenda, with the same members present. After the developer’s lawyer apologized for failing to appear at the previous meeting, Galvin made a motion to extend the permit. And this time, everyone on the board agreed.
One board member abstained in both votes.
The official tally of votes was not clear from the video of the meetings, and the record of the vote is not in the minutes available online. City officials refused to make the case file available to the Globe Thursday, citing public records law that gives them 10 days to turn over information.
The May 23 vote, according to federal prosecutors, boosted the value of the H Street property by $500,000. Turner sold it in January 2018 to a different firm for $3.2 million — twice what he had paid nearly four years prior, according to deeds filed in Suffolk County. That second firm is now building the 11 condos.
Federal prosecutors have not named the developer or the project involved in the bribery, but two people familiar with the case said it was the H Street development, and Turner. He has not responded to requests for comment.
Lynch, 66, has agreed to plead guilty at a hearing scheduled for Sept. 12, and faces 46 to 57 months in prison under an agreement with the US attorney’s office. He has worked at City Hall since the late 1970s. He was paid a $134,601 salary, but abruptly resigned in mid-August.
Last year, Lynch built a duplex condo building on a property next door to his home on Ashland Street in Dorchester, with the two units selling for nearly $1.5 million. Galvin’s real estate firm, the Galvin Group, said on its website that it served as a consultant to Lynch’s project. It also served as the listing agent for the sale of the condos, according to the listings on Zillow and Redfin and Galvin’s own site.
Officials have also not identified the zoning board member involved in the incident, and court records say only that Lynch had known the member “for several years on a personal and professional basis.”
There is also no evidence that the unidentified official — or any other zoning board member — was part of, or even knew of, Lynch’s bribery plot. Prosecutors only said that Lynch used his position “to instruct and advise the zoning board member to vote in favor of a permit extension . . . in exchange for the payment of a cash bribe from [the developer] to defendant Lynch.”
Araujo said in an interview earlier this week that she did not recall the project or how it ended up back on the zoning board’s May 23 agenda, pointing out that the board reviews hundreds of projects a year.
Galvin, reached Tuesday, declined to comment. Several other board members at the time either declined to comment or could not be reached.
The zoning board member who recused himself from voting on the project was architect Anthony Pisani, who said in an interview Thursday that one of his clients at the time was negotiating to buy the site from Turner.
“It would be inappropriate,” said Pisani. “So I recused.”
Pisani said he’d never heard of Lynch until Friday. He also said he had not been contacted by anyone from the mayor’s office, or by federal investigators.
As for how the matter could have been voted down and then come back before the board two weeks later, Pisani — who served on the zoning board for 32 years until retiring in March — said he had no idea.
“That’s a good question,” he said.
In several interviews this week, Walsh has said he does not know the identity of the zoning board member, or even whether anyone at the agency did anything wrong. “It’s pure speculation,” he said.
The mayor said that he had not reached out to the board members, but said his office requested more information from the US attorney’s office about the case. A spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office had no comment on the request.
On Thursday, Walsh initiated what he called a comprehensive review of the zoning board process, to ensure that “best practices including strong internal protocols, are in place to best serve applicants in a way that is transparent and accountable to the public.” The review will be conducted by the law firm Sullivan & Worcester LLP.
“The pace of our growth is unparalleled to any other time in our city’s history, which is a tremendous economic boon for our city, but also brings its own set of challenges,” Walsh said in a statement. “Through this review, I want to make sure that our agencies and staff are best equipped with the knowledge, tools and training they need to do their jobs effectively and to the standard of which they are held.”
Yet at least one city councilor who has previously been critical of the zoning board called for a more aggressive response from the mayor. City Councilor Michelle Wu noted the board is slated to meet Tuesday — under a large cloud of controversy — and suggested that meeting be postponed until more is known about what happened with the H Street case.
“Someone has pled guilty to taking a bribe to influence the ZBA. We need to know who and how and we need to know that before their next scheduled board meeting,” Wu said. “The integrity of the board is in question at this point.”