The key figures in the bribery scandal roiling Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeal all have one thing in common: close ties to City Hall.
From a veteran city staffer to a politically connected Dorchester real estate agent, from an architect-turned-building-czar to a developer who was once his business partner, the people who’ve been implicated in a widening probe into influence-peddling have long relationships with each other, with city politics, and, in some cases, with Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
It’s a network that highlights the web of connections between Boston’s booming real estate industry and the city officials who regulate it, and one that sparks skepticism, from some critics, that the game is fixed for builders who curry favor with City Hall — even if they don’t typically resort to bribery in the process.
That network caught the attention of federal prosecutors, curious why building in Boston is dominated by a relatively small handful of developers, architects, attorneys, and brokers, according to one person with knowledge of the investigation. They’ve been quietly probing it for several years, but just 10 days ago announced their first indictment.
As the scandal has deepened, so has Walsh’s response. He has tapped a former federal prosecutor to investigate the incident, and hired the law firm Sullivan & Worcester to review the ZBA and how it functions. On Monday, he pointed to his overhaul of what’s now the Boston Planning & Development Agency and promised similar changes to the lower-profile ZBA.
“I’ve made clear that if we find anything that allows someone to put their thumb on the scale that I will make immediate changes,” Walsh said in a statement. “I am fully committed to overhauling the Zoning Board of Appeal.”
Still, some who’ve tangled with the system remain deeply skeptical. Brighton activist Joanne D’Alcomo has been fighting plans for a digital billboard along the Massachusetts Turnpike for the last couple of years, plans that involve some of the same players in the bribery case. And it’s given her a window into a process, she said, that’s too often tilted in favor of powerful interests.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “I used all the tools available to me — public records laws, talking with people — and I saw the seamy side of politics really revealed.”
It’s a side, she and other critics say, that’s being unearthed as the bribery scandal spreads, and illustrates how a network of connected insiders can sway city permitting.
Here’s a look at the players connected to the case so far:
John M. Lynch: A 66-year-old from Dorchester who worked for the city in various real estate and small-business positions for 42 years before quietly resigning last month, Lynch admitted taking a $50,000 bribe from a developer to influence a zoning board vote in May 2017. That’s when the board first denied — then two weeks later voted to approve — an extension of zoning changes that allowed a condo building on H Street in South Boston, which sits at the center of the case, to move forward.
What, exactly, Lynch did to influence the board remains unclear, but he did e-mail a ZBA attorney — from his city account — to ask that the project be placed on a meeting agenda, then spoke to that attorney on the developer’s behalf when the developer failed to show up for the hearing. Lynch also had business ties to at least one member of the ZBA.
Craig Galvin: A prominent Dorchester real estate agent, Galvin was named to the ZBA in 2016. He’s been charged with no wrongdoing on the H Street project, though he was the only member to vote in the developer’s favor when the permits were initially denied. A spokeswoman for Galvin said late Sunday that “due to the broad role of a zoning board member and as the board moves forward in their next chapter, Mr. Galvin felt it best to tender his resignation.”
He worked as a consultant to Lynch on a duplex condo building Lynch built on Ashland Street in Clam Point last year, according to the Galvin Group’s website, and served as a listing agent for the condos, which sold for just under $1.5 million combined.
Galvin — who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2011 — is also a longtime Walsh supporter. He made his first political donation, $50, to a Walsh state representative campaign in 2004, according to campaign records, and hosted a fund-raiser for the mayor at the Venezia in Port Norfolk in 2015. A year later, Walsh named Galvin to the ZBA, and he was confirmed to a second term in August.
Steven M. Turner: Another key player in this saga, Turner owned the H Street site in 2017 and, sources say, is the developer who bribed Lynch. After receiving the zoning extension, Turner sold the H Street site for a sizable profit to another builder, who’s building 11 condos there now. He, too, has not been charged with any crime, and has not returned messages from the Globe.
A low-key developer based in Beacon Hill, Turner apparently knew Lynch from when they both worked at the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development. He also, according to state records, was once business partners with the biggest name yet implicated in the scandal.
William “Buddy” Christopher: As head of the city’s Inspectional Services Department, Christopher oversaw the zoning board at the time the H Street project extension was voted on. But in his previous job as a private architect, he represented the project when it was first proposed for zoning changes in 2013 and his son, James, who took over Christopher’s firm when he went to inspectional services, represented it before ZBA four years later.
That revelation prompted Christopher — who now coordinates efforts to tackle Boston’s opioid crisis — to take an unpaid leave of absence from his city job on Friday while investigations are underway. It also brings the scandal much closer to Walsh’s inner circle.
Christopher and the mayor have been close for decades, living on the same street and active in neighborhood affairs in Savin Hill. When Walsh sold his house in 2015 to move to Lower Mills, Christopher bought it, and another of his sons, Michael, worked as an aide to Walsh in the State House and now has a top post at the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
Some on the City Council have used the bribery episode to argue for greater transparency on the board, which rules on small and midsize developments across the city and holds great sway over the look and feel of many neighborhoods.
Councilor Michelle Wu has said it highlights the need to update the city’s archaic zoning code, which requires most building projects to seek variances in the first place. Councilor Matt O’Malley called Friday for a full-time ombudsman to help ensure a “transparent” ZBA process.
“This position will uphold openness, fairness, and accountability, which is especially important during the midst of this building boom,” he said.
Meanwhile, the boom shows no signs of slowing, and neither does the ZBA. The board is scheduled to meet again Tuesday, with a typically crowded docket of more than 60 projects, everything from a roof deck in Charlestown to an eight-story apartment building in the Fenway.