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Executive guilty in donation scheme

Admits soliciting, funneling funds to congressmen

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / September 15, 2010

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A former top executive for the developer behind the failed $800 million Columbus Center project pleaded guilty yesterday to illegally funneling $12,000 in campaign contributions to four Massachusetts congressmen and is evidently cooperating with authorities in an ongoing federal investigation.

Martin Raffol, 54, who served as executive vice president of the residential arm of WinnCompanies until he was fired two weeks ago, admitted in US District Court that he engaged in a scheme from 2003 to 2009 to solicit campaign contributions for politicians who could help the company with its projects.

In brief responses delivered in a firm voice under questioning by Judge Richard G. Stearns, Raffol conceded he collected contributions from vendors who worked for WinnCompanies and secretly reimbursed them by padding the contractors’ bills. Thus, he concealed from the Federal Election Commission that his employer was the real source of the money.

Both sides agree Raffol was ordered by the company to solicit contributions, but no one told him to concoct the illegal scheme.

Raffol, a father of three from Natick, also pleaded guilty to witness tampering for telling a WinnCompanies vendor to lie to authorities investigating the scheme.

He faces up to 20 years in prison on the witness tampering charge and up to five years for the concealment scheme. He is expected to receive a sentence considerably less than 20 years as part of a plea agreement that awaits Stearns’s approval. He is to be sentenced Dec. 8.

The plea agreement is sealed, but Assistant US Attorney James P. Dowden outlined a few provisions, including a requirement that Raffol give up his right to appeal the conviction.

Stearns asked Dowden to discuss a provision in the agreement that the judge characterized as “the most significant part.’’ Dowden balked, then asked to talk to the judge at sidebar.

Standing with the other lawyers by the judge’s bench, Dowden could be heard saying, “The cooperation provision has not been published,’’ meaning prosecutors want to keep it secret.

Neither Dowden nor Raffol’s lawyer, Douglas S. Brooks of Boston, would confirm afterward that Raffol is cooperating with authorities.

A “corporate culture of actively soliciting and directing campaign contributions to various elected candidates’’ existed at WinnCompanies dating as far back as the early 1980s, according to a 17-page case summary by the government and signed by Raffol. The summary said the culture had been “established and perpetuated by a senior executive,’’ an apparent reference to Arthur Winn, the founder of WinnCompanies, who retired as chief executive in 2009.

Dowden, without naming Winn, told the judge that the company founder ordered Raffol to solicit contributions for politicians who could advance the company’s interests.

Neither prosecutors nor Raffol’s lawyer have ever said that Winn or other top executives authorized Raffol to break the law.

Alan Eisner, WinnCompanies spokesman, said last night that neither the company nor its executives were aware of the scheme and that they were “extremely troubled and saddened’’ by the charges. In response, the company has banned solicitation of campaign contributions from vendors, revised its ethics code, and taken other steps.

The company said Raffol was fired Aug. 31, the day he was charged.

Brooks said his client never profited from the scheme, had no interest in politics, and merely wanted to keep his job.

“He found the requirement that he raise money for politicians so distasteful that he repeatedly went to his immediate supervisors and asked whether he would lose his job if he refused,’’ Brooks said. “The message back to Marty was clear: We can’t guarantee your job if you refuse to fund-raise.’’

Raffol directed a total of $12,000 in illegal campaign contributions to US Representatives Barney Frank of Newton, Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston, Michael E. Capuano of Somerville, and William D. Delahunt of Quincy.

He also directed more than $30,000 in illegal contributions to candidates running for state and local offices in Massachusetts, including Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and former state senator Dianne Wilkerson of Boston.

The charges against Raffol related only to the contributions to federal officeholders. There is no evidence that any candidates knew about Raffol’s scheme.

The charges are an offshoot of the federal case against Wilkerson. She pleaded guilty in June to taking $23,500 in bribes in 2007 and 2008, allegedly in exchange for helping a businessman get a liquor license and to help pave the way for a commercial development in Roxbury. She is awaiting sentencing.

The Columbus Center was a megaproject that promised to reconnect the Back Bay with the South End through a six-building complex over the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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