By: Tom Duggan (09/05/07)
An ethics complaint has been filed against Lawrence City Councilor Nunzio DiMarca for a trip he admittedly took to Italy last spring. DiMarca’s plane fare and expenses were all paid for by a local businessman whom he openly lobbied for at the city council table and behind the scenes with other elected officials.
The company, Helios Climate Systems, LLC, is owned by Don Bonelli who has a P.O. Box in Andover. Bonelli was granted a meeting with Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan and other city officials “at Councilor DiMarca’s insistence” and also met with other city officials to try and secure city services for Bonelli’s company, Helios Climate Systems, LLC.
The ethics complaint, dated September 3, 2007 charges “Councilor DiMarca repeatedly used his access as a city councilor to lobby other city officials to help this company by insisting that they direct grants, issue press releases favorable to the company and that they direct their energies to find property and other public dollars that could be earmarked for the company.”
The complaint continues; “Councilor DiMarca has told numerous people that his trip was paid for by the company, that he served as a ‘translator’ throughout the trip and that the company did this because of how valuable he, Councilor DiMarca, could be to this company’s growth. Councilor DiMarca also mentioned that he made it clear to business officials in Italy that he was an elected official in Lawrence, Ma (sic) and would use his government standing to ‘get things done’ for the company.”
In a letter obtained by the Valley Patriot addressed to Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan, Don Bonelli writes, “Councilman DiMarca has been a tremendous help to us in the negotiation process with our European partners. As you know the councilman recently accompanied me on my recent business trip to Italy and represented the council’s interest as well as acting in a translator capacity. His help was instrumental in securing a deal which will benefit both Helios and Lawrence.”
“He paid for the whole trip,” DiMarca said after a city council meeting where he had just openly lobbied for Bonelli’s company. “After all, I am a city councilor and he needs help getting his business started in Lawrence. He also needed someone to go with him to Italy who speaks the language, so I served both as a representative of the city and as a translator.”
DiMarca explained that Bonelli is planning to open his manufacturing firm in Lawrence once he has secured contracts with European companies to supply energy efficient heating and cooling units.
Section 23(b)(2) of Massachusetts’ conflict of interest law prohibits a public employee from using or attempting to use his position to secure for himself or others an unwarranted privilege of substantial value not properly available to similarly situated individuals. Section 23(b)(3) of the law prohibits a public official from knowingly, or with reason to know, acting in a manner which would cause a reasonable person, having knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to conclude that anyone can improperly influence or unduly enjoy the public employee’s favor in the performance of his official duties.
According to the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission website, public officials “may not ask for or accept anything (regardless of its value), if it is offered in exchange for your agreeing to perform or not perform an official act… (public officials) may not ask for or accept anything worth $50 or more from anyone with whom you have official dealings. Examples of regulated “gifts” include: sports tickets, costs of drinks and meals, travel expenses, conference fees, gifts of appreciation, entertainment expenses, free use of vacation homes and complimentary tickets to charitable events.
“I am concerned because Councilor DiMarca has used his position as a city councilor to gain direct access for this company to city officials,” the complaint alleges, “including those directly involved in the decision-making process for economic development in the city. Councilor DiMarca has made demands for, before and after this trip, face-to-face meetings with the mayor, the planning director, the economic development officer and other city officials to lobby for the Helios company to receive benefits from the city.”
Several city officials told the Valley Patriot that Councilor DiMarca “actively lobbied” them to give preferential treatment to Mr. Bonelli as well as demanding that they give him access to Community Development Block Grants and possibly helping Bonelli acquire city owned land. The Lawrence City Council recently dismantled the real property task force and is now the governing body in charge of selling surplus land.
The complaint also states: “Councilor DiMarca has been very angry with a few city employees because they have repeatedly denied his requests to set up “investor” meetings with some wealthy businessmen in Lawrence. Councilor DiMarca wanted these city employees to use the relationships they have built with other business people to give creditability to this new company, Helios, and to use their creditability to convince these business people to invest with this new company. He was refused this request because city officials felt it was improper for them to be conducting an “investors” meeting and asking private people to invest directly in this new company. Councilor DiMarca repeatedly expressed his strong displeasure that this was not being done.” (emphasis by author)
The Valley Patriot confirmed with three different city officials that DiMarca was lobbying for Mr. Bonelli to receive special treatment both before and after taking the trip as well as DiMarca’s insistence that “investors” meetings be set up by city employees.
“He wanted us to use the resources of the city to help Mr. Bonelli start up his company,” one city employee said. “He then suggested very strongly that we (the city) act as Bonelli’s business agents by setting up meetings with local businessmen who have a good relationship with the mayor’s office. He specifically wanted the mayor’s office to give our official stamp of approval in front of these Lawrence business owners as he pitched his business proposals to them. That is just not something that’s appropriate for me to do as a city employee and Mr. DiMarca should know that. When I told him I didn’t feel comfortable doing him this ‘favor’, he began to make overtures about how much power a city councilor has and how my job could be cut out of the budget on ‘one councilors recommendation.’ It was a very uncomfortable position to be put in and through this whole budget process I was really worried I was going to lose my job.” Saying they feared retaliation by the councilor, all three of the city officials who spoke with the Valley Patriot asked that neither their names nor job titles be identified.
While bragging to a Valley Patriot reporter about his free trip to Italy, DiMarca was asked if he did any sightseeing in his “home country”. DiMarca said they had no time. “We didn’t have any time for leisure. This was a business trip. I was representing the city and I was translating for Mr. Bonelli. He is going to bring jobs to Lawrence and the city should be doing everything we can to help him start up his business right here in Lawrence.”
DiMarca also stated that he had the opportunity to visit family members while in Italy but added, “I was there to help Lawrence. It was a win-win for both of us, he needed a translator to help him make his business dealings and Lawrence needs business. Lawrence needs jobs. Why don’t you write a story about that?” he asked. “But you won’t print a story about how Councilor DiMarca is doing the mayor’s job and the job of the planning department. I’m doing more to bring business and economic development to the city than the so-called economic development department and I’m not getting any credit for it.”
“Yeah, he’s doing all he can to help a guy who gave him a free trip to Italy,” one city employee responded. “And who knows if he is benefiting in other ways in exchange for greasing the skids and promising free city services.”
Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan said he would not comment on the matter other than to say he did meet with Mr. Bonelli and councilor DiMarca about Helios Climate Systems “at councilor DiMarca’s insistence.”
Several members of the Lawrence City Council said that DiMarca did speak favorably about Helios Climate Systems during city council meetings but that the city council, as a body, “never voted to send him to Italy as our representative,” nor did he “represent the city council’s interest.” The Lawrence City Charter only gives councilors authority to represent the City of Lawrence when acting as a body or when appointed by the council president to represent the council in official city business. Council President Patrick Blanchette could not be reached for comment.