Globe, CommonWealth spar over Brian Joyce’s permits

Brian Joyce
Brian Joyce

It looks like an old-fashioned media war has broken out between the Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine over improvements that outgoing state senator Brian Joyce made to his home in Milton—improvements that the Globe reported may have been made without the proper permits.

Globe reporter Andrea Estes wrote on August 15 that Joyce—a Democrat who’s under investigation by federal authorities on an unrelated matter—may not have had the proper permits when he added more than 2,500 square feet to his home, which is now on the market. She quoted William Bennett, a member of the town’s board of assessors, as saying:

I would be very concerned if any resident did not apply for the proper permits when doing renovations that would have an effect on the value of their property. But it’s even more disheartening if one of our elected officials ignored the town’s laws.

Soon there was pushback, with CommonWealth‘s Jack Sullivan reporting on August 22 that Joyce’s son Michael had posted images of the permits on Facebook. Sullivan, a former Globe and Boston Herald reporter, added that Milton’s chief assessor, Robert Bushway, had concluded that all of the permits were in order.

“I don’t think there’s as much discrepancy as first thought,” Bushway told Sullivan. “After talking to the building inspector, it sounds like they determined all the permits that were needed were pulled. Some of the permits pulled 13 years ago were a little more ambiguous than they are nowadays.”

Three days later, Estes was back with a report that Joyce had issued a statement defending himself and calling her original story “the worst form of irresponsible journalism.” Estes also noted that Joyce had consistently rejected her attempts to interview him. And Bushway was back, too, telling the Globe that Joyce had refused to let him inspect the interior of his home in order to determine the value.

Which brings us to today. Under a headline that flat-out declares “Joyce absolved of wrongdoing,” Sullivan begins:

Sen. Brian Joyce obtained all the required permits to renovate his home, according to a report by the Milton Town Administrator that rebuts questions raised in a newspaper article over whether the lawmaker clandestinely renovated his house without town officials’ knowledge.

“Based upon my review of these files and my consultation with the Building Commissioner, I conclude that the developer who sold the property and/or Senator and Mrs. Joyce obtained the necessary building permits for the work described in those records,” Annemarie Fagan, reading from her report, told the Board of Selectmen Tuesday night.

In the Globe, Travis Andersen and Estes report under the far more ambiguous headline “Milton officials debate whether renovations to Joyce’s home were permitted.” They quote Bennett, the town assessor cited in Estes’s original story, as saying that there is actually no way of knowing whether the work Joyce had done was within the scope of the permits unless an inspection is conducted—which Joyce still hasn’t agreed to. Bennett continues:

There’s no way for us to determine if the work was done under those permits or after those permits—unless we’re allowed in the house to get an understanding of when this work was done. The permits we’ve seen don’t talk about the renovations that are in question—the kitchen, the bathrooms, the finished basement, additional finished rooms in the attic and the office over the garage.

When presented with such divergent accounts, I like to look for undisputed facts. Here are three: 1. The permits were issued more than a dozen years ago, which certainly could contribute to confusion and misunderstanding over what was allowed and what wasn’t. 2. The town administrator has cleared Joyce of any wrongdoing. 3. A town assessor continues to say there’s no way of knowing whether Joyce is in compliance or not unless Joyce allows a home inspection.

To be continued.

To leave a comment, please visit the link to this post on Facebook.

Advertisements

DiMasi’s conviction and the Boston Globe

It’s an observation that has become cliché, but it needs to be made: Without robust local journalism, it is nearly impossible to hold government accountable. Yesterday’s conviction of former Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi on federal corruption charges would likely not have happened without the Boston Globe.

As best as I can tell, the first article was this one, published on May 23, 2008, and written by staff reporter Andrea Estes — with an assist by Steve Kurkjian, a legendary investigative reporter who is still working despite being allegedly retired. Headlined “IBM, Cognos to refund state $13m,” it contained the seeds from which grew a mighty oak:

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi had taken a strong interest in the contract last year. The former head of the Information Technology Division told state officials that the middleman in the deal, former Cognos executive Joseph Lally, had bragged about his relationship with DiMasi and suggested that DiMasi wanted the contract to go to Cognos. Cognos also contributed generously over several years to a charitable golf tournament hosted by DiMasi at his home course, the Ipswich Country Club.

The impetus for that first story came from Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, who found that the Cognos contract violated state bidding rules. But the matter may have gone no further if the Globe had not kept pushing.

Two months later, Estes and Kurkjian reported, “Software company Cognos ULC hired House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi’s law associate, and a key Cognos sales agent hired DiMasi’s personal accountant during a period when the firm was winning millions of dollars in state contracts.” The rest is history.

I’ll admit that I was skeptical of the DiMasi prosecution. I didn’t like it that his downfall began shortly after he saved the state from Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to build three casinos — not that I’m suggesting a relationship between those two actions.

I also didn’t like the feds’ reliance on the “honest services” statute, which US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has observed is so broad it could outlaw “a mayor’s attempt to use the prestige of his office to obtain a restaurant table without a reservation.” (Although I should note that the court narrowed the law considerably in 2010.)

As it turned out, though, the evidence against DiMasi was strong; nor did he offer much of a defense.

This is journalism in the public interest, and no one can do it except a large, well-funded news organization with lots of resources. It doesn’t have to be a newspaper. But in 2011, very few news organizations other than newspapers are capable of such vitally important work.

Update: After doing some additional research, I now think this Estes article from March 10, 2008, was the first to link DiMasi and Cognos.

Photo (cc) by Luciof and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.