Two: The McCourthouse Saga
Itís Go for Court in Hadley;
Bostonís Gift to Billy Nagle
By Mike Kirby
It was April 9, about 14 months ago. Paul Cellucci, in one of his last official acts as governor, appointed 48-year-old William Nagle of Northampton as clerk magistrate of the Ware District Court, a $88,676 position with no mandatory retirement. "All the stars aligned for this," the former House majority leader told Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Mary Carey. Then, three months later, the State announced that it would build him a temporary courthouse in Hadley so that the Ware District Court could start hearing cases from the new Eastern Hampshire District, created in January of 2002. He wouldnít have to commute to Ware any more. The new courthouse would be only five miles from the old one, and only about a 15-minute commute from his home in Florence.
In part one of this article, The McCourthouse ( Downstreet issue Vol. 2, No. 11) we reported that the Hadley Courthouse was just the latest in a whole series of projects in which limited liability corporations (LLCs) with hidden links to the Peter Picknelly family of Springfield and builder Joe Marois seemed to have gotten a corner on public construction projects in Western Massachusetts. Since then we have received a limited denial from Peter Picknelly and discovered yet another project to add to the list, the remodeling of an office building in Orange for the Massachusetts Trial Court.
The projects with ties to the Picknelly interests to date are:1997/1998. The Holyoke Juvenile Court Facility
Construction Cost: $960,000.00
Architect: Bernard Schenkelberg
Builder: Marois Construction
Owner: Gretna Greene Development Corp.
Financing: Peoples Savings Bank
2000/2001 Childrenís Study Home, South Hadley (a DYS facility)
Construction Cost $500,000-$800,000
Architect: Bernard Schenkelberg
Builder: Marois Construction
Owner: Canal Street Development LLC
Financing: Peoples Savings Bank
Office for Social Security Program (GSA)
Architect: Bernard M. Schenkelberg
Builder: Marois Construction
Owner: Westfield Court Associates LLC
(Paul Picknelly and Peter Picknelly)
2001-2002 Greenfield office for Northwestern District
Attorney, Elizabeth Scheibel
Hampshire County Courthouse
When Springfield real estate broker Matthew McDonough showed up in Westfield in the summer of 2000 representing Westfield Court Associates LLC, city officials immediately recognized a Picknelly project was afoot. McDonough had acquired two parcels of land in a run-down area of Main Street with an eye toward building a new courthouse for the Massachusetts Trial Court. Over the years, McDonough has pushed through many projects for the Picknellys, and his name is well known in city halls throughout the area.
Westfield Mayor Richard Sullivan convened a big meeting on Oct. 27, 1999 with all the city agencies that would have to sign off on the project. McDonough, architect Bernard Schenkelberg, and Marois Construction were there. The city fast-tracked the proposal. The first city hearing was in December, 2000, construction started in August, site approval was received in October, and in the following March the courthouse employees moved in, after the building sat empty for awhile, awaiting furniture. Along the way, though, the development group picked up some enemies. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (UBCJ) picketed the construction site The union alleged that Marois subcontracted most of its carpentry work to General Drywall, which classified its carpenters as independent contractors. "A group of guys pile out of a van early in the morning and the boss calls them independent contractors" said Arthur Butler, a field investigator for the Foundation for Fair Contracting of Massachusetts. People hired as independent contractors donít pay federal withholding or Social Security taxes out of their wages, and donít get overtime or unemployment pay.
The push to create a new district for the Trial Court by splitting Hampshire County into eastern and western districts seems to have started in Boston in the l997-l998 period. Boston decided that the court in Ware would hear all criminal and civil cases originating in the towns of Hadley, South Hadley, Amherst, and Pelham. The effective date of this change would be Jan. 1st of this year. The state bail administrator told me that Boston wanted to eliminate the disparity between a small underutilized courthouse in Ware, and the Northampton court. "It was a case of the flea and the elephant" said Mike McEneaney. "They wanted to break the service area in two so there was parity, and put the new courthouse in Belchertown."
When I first blundered into this story in April, I thought the decisions to create a courthouse in Hadley were being made by Springfield interests; now all the arrows seem to point to Boston, which means House Speaker Tom Finneran; the stateís landlord agency, the Department of Capital Assets Management (DCAM), and people in the administrative offices of the Trial Court at 3 Court Plaza, the massive modernistic circular building at the foot of Beacon Hill.
Nagle, then a 25-year veteran of the House, announced he would make Finneran happy by vacating his position, and would move over to the clerkship in April. When the restructuring into East-West court jurisdictions went into effect on Jan. 1, the magistrateís income from bail fees almost doubled, and a change in the bail policy effective June 13, 2001 raised the fee that clerk-magistrates can charge for after-hours bail from $25 to $40. Thus, as clerk-magistrate, Nagleís income from bail fees this year might yield him another $30,000 on top of his $88,000 salary.
Following a meeting last summer with local courthouse people, Boston decided that it couldnít wait for a permanent building to be built on the grounds of the Belchertown State School. The Trial Court decided in June of last year that the state instead would build a temporary courthouse in Hadley. In a letter to a local senator, the chief administrative judge of the Trial Court said "Our decision to limit the search area to Hadley was based on discussions with local court officials" about implementing the new East-West the jurisdictional change. Bruce Brock, spokesman for the Trial Court, told me that "part of the investigation that went into the decision involved determining that there was suitable space for lease available there." Reading between the lines, one senses that that a little meeting of like-minded people was held, and that was that. Decision made.
Talking to Brock on the phone about a month ago, I sensed that the man on the other end of the line was sincerely puzzled that the people out here in Western Massachusetts were unhappy with their decision. He got a map of our area out of his desk and tried to understand what had gone wrong out here in the boondocks. He located Amherst on the map; he located Hadley. He didnít understand. I explained about how remote the courthouse site was from Ware and Belchertown and Pelham, I explained about Route 9 construction, I even tried to explain how hard is was going to be for us poor hicks out here to come out of our new courthouse on Russell Street and manage a successful left turn in the teeth of the onrushing hordes on Route 9.
On July 6, 2001,the Trial Court in Boston wrote DCAM asking it to issue a RFP (Request for Proposals) for a 14,998-square-foot facility for the "proposed Hadley Session of the Ware District Court." The trial court ccíed their note to Nagle. DCAM, ordinarily known for its glacial pace, got right on it. Bruce Tebo, the project manager, sent out the paperwork on the 13th of July, and the advertisement was in the notices section of the Aug. 8 Gazette. Some time in August the broker for the two dentists who owned 2.5 acres at 116 Russell St. were approached by Matthew McDonough on behalf of ROAM LLC. The deadline for the proposals to be back to DCAM was Sept. 7. Unless you had been looking for the ad to appear in the legal notices, you would have missed it.
Nagle then filed a legislative line item in the house budget for $2.5 million to fund a five-year lease for that temporary courthouse in Hadley, and Rep Nancy Flavin (D of Easthampton), lead the drive to make sure the funding survived the joint conference committee. The double-barreled effort caught most law professionals in the county by surprise, and the change had few defenders except for the presiding judge at Ware, Nancy Dusek-Gomez. There was immediately a major uproar. Other judges got on the phone to Boston. The front page article in the Gazette on Feb. 20, Political Dealing Landed Court in Hadley" made the case that the courthouse was going to be in Hadley because Flavin had decided her Hadley constituency was more deserving, and because of her clout on Speaker Finneranís leadership team. "I offered up Hadley, because thereís public transportation thatís easy to access and people donít have to cross the bridge," she said. In February, Bruce Brock, spokesman for the Trial Court in Boston, backed up her version by saying that the reason the Trial Court specified Hadley was simple, "The court based the request on the request on the enabling legislation that specified Hadley."
Not true. An early draft of the bill specified Hadley, but the language of the final appropriation passed on Dec. 1 does not specify a site. If the Trial Court had not jumped the gun, a Belchertown site could have been funded through the "temporary" funding. Why the rush? Politics. Boston (read Finneran) wanted to get rid of an ineffectual majority leader, and so subrosa agreements were forged for Nagleís golden parachute. Split the jurisdiction, move up the date it takes effect, give Nagle the job, and get the court and DCAM to ramrod through a Hadley location.
Only three bids came in for the "temporary" Hadley courthouse project. Matt McDonough, auto repairman Kevin Michelson (Kevinís Auto Repair, Kar Sales), who wanted to build another building next to the new Registry of Motor Vehicles Office, and someone named Joseph Korecki, who wanted to put the building at 380 Russell St. McDonough won the bid, for reasons that are probably only known to God and DCAMís project manager. Iíve read the stateís Request For Proposal paperwork from other agencies, and often you have some kind of checklists in the public files that show how review committees made their decisions - how different bids qualified or didnít qualify under the various requirements. Does the bidder have "X", "Y" and "Z"? Things like the property being on the bus line, a track record with these kind of projects, etc, etc, and more etc. But all there was in the file was a brief note saying McDonough had a terrific proposal, and Michelsonís bid was not what the state wanted. Nothing objective, which means that the angry letter I found in the file from Michelsonís Hyannis lawyer were understandable. The fix might have been in.
By Nov. 2, 2001, broker Matt McDonough had been selected as the successful bidder, and on Dec. 17, 2001 a Limited Liability Corporation by the name of ROAM bought the property at 116 Russell St., from two Springfield dentists for $403,000 and got a $2.4 million mortgage from Peoples Savings Bank in Holyoke, secured by the property and the rent money. Who are the ROAM partners? In the pile of paperwork on the project in DCAM files is a bank commitment letter addressed to four people.
Edward J. Ryan Jr.
*An out-of-state investor
ROAM. I read this list of names to McDonough, and he lost his temper with me and started yelling about calling his bank and telling them off for giving me the information. They didnít, the state did. Practically every one of his projects has a different cast of characters, but Atty. John Auth is always there, and Peter Picknelly confirmed that he often uses Auth to represent his interest in real estate development projects. But he and his son, Paul Picknelly deny they have any interest in the Hadley project, and there you are. Now McDonough is out of his plush office atop Picknellyís plush Monarch Plaza office tower in Springfield and maybe a divorce decree is in place, and maybe this is all smoke and mirrors. It feels like the Yellow Brick Road leads straight up to the 25th floor of Monarch Place.Just after Christmas Matt McDonough was out in the Hadley neighborhood, telling the group of New Age therapists in the small brick building on the site that it was time to move on. In January he and his partner Atty. Edward Ryan of South Hadley went before the Hadley planning board, and started out working on the necessary permits. Jason Garand, organizer for the union that had picketed their Westfield court project, appeared before the planning board and got roughed up by the chairman James Maksimosti, who tore up his informational packet and dropped it in the wastebasket. "Our planning board treats everyone according to the zoning bylaws. Period." said Maksimosti. "If they hired slaves in here, to be honest, itís out of the jurisdiction of the planning board."
I attended Hadley planning meetings in March and April when they were reviewing the project. The hearing room is relatively small and fills up quickly. Everyone over on that side of the river works hard for a living, and beards and dungarees are common. When I arrived for the "open house" portion, the parking lot was jammed with Ford F-350s, Explorers, and those mysterious hybrids that look like great armored beetles. The first part of the meeting is the time you can come in with your plans and your questions and get answers from the board and the planning director. When all the traffic dies down, they start the formal hearings in this smallish dark-paneled room with three lines of benches.
The board members I think are retirees, at least theyíre all around my age or older. Nice men who donít seem to talk very much except to trade small pleasantries and joke among themselves. Occasionally one of them will ask inappropriate questions or make inappropriate remarks and then they are dealt with by the chairman, who seems to run a tight ship. The ROAM people are very competent and business-like, and that will carry you a long way with community boards. The board liked their plans. They were pleased when one of his people pointed out that they were carrying out the building detailing all the way around so that there wouldnít be just a blank wall in back.
The only people who attacked the ROAM proposals were two guys that had lost out in the bidding war for the facility, Kevin Michelson and his collaborator John Regish. On April 16, ROAM got its permits. They had an option on an adjoining parcel, and it would give them enough land for parking to satisfy the board.
McDonough was there, leading the presentation. He always looks sharp. On this Tuesday he had on an expensive blue suit with a blood-red tie and a blue striped shirt. McDonough said all he needed from the board was five minutes, and that was only a little optimistic. Twenty minutes later it was all over, the sun was going down over Hadley, the ROAM people were out of there, and the lawyer from Pyramid, owner of the Hampshire Mall, was in to see the board. The business with ROAM was just pro forma, settling what would happen with the elm in the back yard of the adjoining land. The elm was going to go, I think, and they would get some kind of waiver, the seventh they had requested. ROAM had submitted a thick nine-page final plan, and the board members clustered around it. Each page was initialed, and the various conditions granted in the planning board approval were read into the record. Atty. Ryan, chief spokesman for ROAM, made a courteous ornate little speech thanking the board for their professionalism and rigor. The chairman wondered aloud to McDonough if all the turmoil in state government was affecting his project.
McDonough smiled broadly. "At times like this I remember the motto of that cartoon figure in MAD magazine, "What me worry?" There was laughter. McDonough didnít seem worried. "At the first opportunity Iím going across the hall and pull a permit."
He was bluffing, I think, busy building that McDonough mystique. Hadley officials love the wheelers and dealers of the world who flock to their town and keep the tax rate down. In reality, the project was in trouble in Boston. In November all the mail and phone calls began coming in from Northampton. A lease agreement was in the file, signed on Dec. 11, but no check was made out. Completion was slated in June, and June came and went and the project hadnít started. Another McDonough/Marois project hit a wall in June, when the town building inspector shut down a million dollar rehab job of the District Court building in Orange. Marois was working without a permit.
I found out about their Orange project by filing a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) with DCAM. . Itís one of the great freedoms left here in the United States. If you as a writer or just a public citizen thinks there is something rotten in Denmark, you can file a simple one page request with the lawyers that represent Denmark and they have two weeks to respond to you and open up their files. The attorney for DCAM has always been most helpful to me in my fishing expeditions. And managers of LLCs doing business with the state have to file a listing of the people with equity in the project.
You donít get precisely what you are looking for with FOIAs, but you almost always get something interesting. Raw files replete with institutional angst, angry memos from person "A" to person "B". When I got the file on the Hadley Courthouse, tucked into it was a letter from a Union-News reporter looking for information on the Picknelly connections to all these projects. Buried in the text of the letter was a reference to Orange Court Associates LLC . This tipped me to yet another McDonough project.
In Hadley, the McDonough machine has had a tough road to hoe. Our state legislators, with the exception of Rep. Flavin, opposed this courthouse deal. The bar association and most of the judges opposed it. Even Peter Kocot, who loyally worked for Nagle for many years, seems to have thrown his lot in with the opposition now that he has been elected to the House seat from the district. In talking to me the other day, Kocot called the Hadley project a remote, very poor location, and was vexed by the court decision to build this new courthouse while he and other Western Massachusetts legislators are dealing with laid-off teachers and social workers, and a stalled capital improvement projects for schools.
A couple weeks ago I dropped by to see Tim Neyhart, Hadleyís building inspector to see if McDonough had picked up his permit. "No, he hasnít picked it up yet," the building inspector told me. He grinned. "Heís got until midnight, June 30th. I donít know" he said, "I think maybe heíll do it, pull a rabbit out of the hat. Heís that kind of a guy. "
If not spent by midnight June 30, the $2.5 million appropriation for the Hadley project would have gone back into the general fund. DCAM, acting at the last minute, signed the lease with ROAM, and the Trial Court has also given its approval. Western Massachusetts legislators, almost to a man or a woman, thought the project was dead. But it is alive and well, as evidenced by fencing having been installed around the site, the elm cut down and excavation underway. Despite rumors that the lease would only be for three years, the lease will be pretty much as originally proposed, $451,000 a year for five years. The annual rent paid by the state for the three Picknelly -associated courthouses, Westfield, Orange, and Hadley, is said to top $1.2 million. In the case of Hadley, thereís a proviso that the state can back out after three years. My bet is that it wonít back out, since McDonoughís math wonít work with only three years of lease money. I, too, thought the project was dead, but here is McDonough with a big smile, holding the rabbit.
The approval of this project goes a long way toward proving that the Western Massachusetts delegation in the State House is pretty ineffectual in stopping a project that Peter Picknelly and Matt McDonough are pushing. It might also be another poster illustration of how money and backroom dealing determines Bostonís policies, not political process.
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