By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Eleven days after Patriot Ambulance hired David Torrisi as its first lobbyist in at least a decade, the former state representative escorted the company’s owners to a private meeting with his long-time friend, Mayor Daniel Rivera.
For the first time in 15 years, Patriot was in a fight to keep its contract with the city, which gave it exclusive rights to respond to the thousands of 911 calls seeking medical assistance that come into the Police Department annually.
Patriot’s top competitor for the contract was Lawrence General Hospital. And Torrisi was serving on the hospital’s board of directors even as he ushered Patriot’s owners into the meeting with the new mayor to urge him to stick with Patriot.
Torrisi said he had heard “rumblings and speculation” that the hospital also was seeking the city contract by the time he met with Rivera on Jan. 31, but he said he did not violate his fiduciary obligation to the hospital when he lobbied against its interests at the meeting. Later, after learning that the hospital was indeed seeking the contract, he said, he fulfilled his ethical responsibility by telling Matthew Caffrey, the chairman of the board, that he was lobbying for a competitor.
Torrisi continued serving on the hospital board until Feb. 26, four weeks after his meeting with Rivera, when the hospital won the ambulance contract from his client. He resigned, he said, in part because he was unhappy the hospital won the contract.
Robert McNulty, the director of programs at Bentley University’s Center for Business Ethics, said Torrisi’s disclosure of his competing interest did not resolve the conflict he faced by advocating against the hospital’s interests while serving on its board.
“It’s pretty clear,” McNulty said. “If he’s on the board of directors, his duty to them is to advance the interest of the hospital. To represent a competitor in a lobbying context, that to me looks like a pretty clear conflict of interest. He ought not to be taking clients that are in direct competition with the hospital.”
Beyond his work for Patriot, Torrisi faces at least one other significant competing interest at City Hall as he grows his new lobbying business and walks his clients – who also include developer and restaurateur Sal Lupoli, owner of the 1.4 million-square-foot Riverwalk Properties – up to Rivera’s third-floor suite of offices.
Torrisi’s sister is Rivera’s chief of staff.
Rivera’s decision to tap Lisa Torrisi as his top aide capped a 20-year friendship with the family, which began when he and David Torrisi met while working on Andover Sen. Barry Finegold’s first campaign for the Statehouse. The friendship grew in several ways last year, when Torrisi helped steer Rivera’s long-shot campaign for mayor.
Torrisi served as a top adviser to the campaign, as Rivera’s lawyer through the recount that followed the election and as the master of ceremonies at Rivera’s inaugural ceremony in January. In all, Torrisi family members gave at least $2,600 to Rivera’s campaign, making the family his biggest donor.
The family business, Jackson Lumber and Millwork on Jackson Street, donated another $5,000 to Rivera’s inaugural ceremonies.
Torrisi’s work on Rivera’s campaign and his family’s political donations don’t necessarily pose conflicts for either man when Torrisi shows up at City Hall with a client. McNulty said. Those relationships are common in politics and government. But McNulty said the sibling relationship between the mayor’s top aide and a prominent local lobbyist whose clients include one of the city’s leading developers could present recurring ethical issues for the Rivera administration.
“For the mayor, there could be the appearance of a conflict of interest due to the fact that the sister of Mr. Torrisi is the mayor’s chief of staff,” McNulty said. “From the mayor’s perspective, he’d want to avoid that appearance and probably want to keep a distance from Mr. Torrisi in any lobbying context.”
Torrisi disagreed but did not directly respond to a question about the potential for conflict when he lobbies a mayor whose top advisor is his sister.
“My sister is a great person and does a great job for the city,” Torrisi said. “I don’t really care what a professor from Bentley thinks about this. This person doesn’t know the first thing about me or my family. I represented the city for 14 years. I have clients that do business in the city. The American Red Cross. Sal Lupoli. Those organizations touch the city in a positive way. I have nothing to hide in that regard.”
Torrisi represented the 14th Essex District at the Statehouse from 1999 to 2012.
He said Patriot had more than its Lawrence contract in mind when it hired him, noting that he represents the company in other communities it serves in the region and on Beacon Hill.
Records on file with the Secretary of State show Patriot had not employed a lobbyist for at least 10 years before hiring Torrisi on Jan. 20, 18 days after Rivera took office and soon made it known that the company’s contract was up for grabs. Patriot co-owners David Walton and Maurice Ryan met with Rivera 11 days after hiring Torrisi.
Walton and Ryan did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
The state allows mayors to ask for bids for ambulance contracts but does not require that they do so. The Lawrence City Charter allows mayors to sign contracts of less than three years without submitting them to the City Council.
Rivera said he has reminded Lisa Torrisi to alert him whenever a potential conflict arises, as required of all city employees by city policy.
Rivera said Lisa Torrisi was in the room for at least part of his meeting with her brother and Patriot’s owners but did not participate in the discussion. He said the fact that he gave the ambulance contract to Lawrence General Hospital rather than renew it with Torrisi’s client is proof that the proper ethical controls are in place in his administration.
“The people David was advocating for didn’t get the contract,” Rivera said. “The hospital got it. Now that’s an issue?”
“David served his community for 14 years as a state representative. He was everywhere, so it’s going to appear like that,” he said of the possible appearance of conflict.
Rivera said he invited Lawrence General Hospital to take over the ambulance contract to fortify the hospital’s standing in the region, to provide what he said will be “world-class service” and to lift the pall over the Patriot contract that he said existed under former Mayor William Lantigua.
In 2011, co-owners Walton and Ryan were subpoenaed by grand juries investigating reports that Lantigua pressured them to donate ambulances to the city of Tenares in the Dominican Republic, which has provided an influx of immigrants — and voters — to Lawrence.
Lawrence General Hospital officials declined to be interviewed for this story but responded by email through its press office to a list of questions from The Eagle-Tribune.
The email — with answers attributed to Paul Brennan, the hospital’s director of emergency medical services, and to the hospital’s “executive leadership” — did not respond to a question about the lobbying for a competitor Torrisi did while serving on the hospital board. Generally, the email said, “measures are taken to be sure trustees with potential conflicts are not involved in discussions or decision-making around the conflict.”
Massachusetts state legislators are barred from returning to the Statehouse as lobbyists for up to two years after leaving office.Torrisi’s two-year clock ran out on Jan. 1. Since then, Torrisi’s consulting company, Torrisi Strategic Advisors, has taken on four clients. Besides Patriot Ambulance, they are:
– Lupoli Companies, owned by Sal Lupoli, the restaurateur and developer who may be the city’s biggest property owner. The company’s holdings include Riverfront Properties on Merrimack, a 1.4-million-square foot commercial property.
– Alternative Therapies Group, a marijuana dispensary opening in Salem, Mass.q Chris Edwards, a board member of Alternative Therapies, said Torrisi was retained “to make introductions at the local level.”
– The American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts. The agency retained Torrisi to manage its “legislative and municipal relationships,” according to lobbying disclosure records on file with the Secretary of State.