Spurned by co-op, man lobbies legislators again

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / July 30, 2011

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The rancorous saga over a Beacon Hill cooperative’s snub to a brash self-made cosmetics executive just won’t die.

John P. Walsh, who has charged that the luxury building’s board discriminated against him because of his hardscrabble background, is back at the State House pushing the Legislature to pass a bill that would severely limit a coop’s ability to disqualify prospective residents.

Walsh said the legislation is meant to prevent the sort of humiliation he contends he and his family suffered in 2006 when they were rejected from the co-op at Beacon and Charles Streets with little explanation. His subsequent legal action resulted in a $2.2 million settlement from the owners, who had claimed that Walsh just wasn’t the right fit for the building.

To push his cause, Walsh, the chief executive of the Elizabeth Grady chain of skin care salons, has hired one of the State House’s top lobbyists, Robert F. White, paying him $30,000 to rally support for his bill.

His effort to strike back at the owners of the co-op has reignited a five-year-old battle that offered a glimpse of the tensions that some say still simmer between the city’s Brahmin upper crust and the descendants of its working-class Irish immigrants.

The saga has been laced with charges of discrimination, class snobbery, and, later, revelations about the $10,000 “loan’’ Walsh had given to corrupt state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who initially pushed his bill at the State House in 2007 and 2008.

But caught in the crossfire is an important public policy debate. Walsh’s legislation would significantly change a longstanding policy that has allowed groups to form exclusive living units, known as housing cooperatives or co-ops.

Courts have ruled that co-ops are private entities, much like private clubs, and have the right to select who can purchase units in their buildings as long they do not violate antidiscrimination laws.

But Walsh’s latest bill - a toned down version of the earlier ones that failed - would declare that one of the few reasons a potential buyer could be rejected by a co-op board would be an inability to afford the unit. Co-op boards that reject applicants would have to put their reasons in writing, something they are not currently required to do.

“I have a moral obligation to push for equality and to ban the last line of select discrimination,’’ Walsh said in a recent interview.

His bill is making it way through the legislative process. A hearing was held last month and the bill now faces a vote in the joint Committee on Housing. If approved, it will go to the House and Senate floors for a vote.

Walsh’s rags-to-riches personal story of having risen from a youth spent in the housing projects in Somerville to building a successful cosmetics chain created a good deal of sympathy among some on Beacon Hill and in the media.

But opponents say an important housing issue is getting drowned out amid the clatter over ethnicity and class and over what they say is Walsh’s wish to settle a score.

“John Walsh’s bill is a blunt instrument that would effectively prohibit co-ops in Massachusetts . . . to prove that he should have been allowed to buy a co-op at 68 Beacon Street,’’ said Representative Martha M. Walz, a Back Bay Democrat who strongly defends the Beacon Street owners. “This legislation is a solution in search of a problem.’’

Walsh has lined up three state senators - Democrats Barry Finegold of Andover and Steven Tolman of Brighton, and Republican Bruce E. Tarr of Gloucester, the minority leader. The House chairman of the joint judiciary committee, Eugene O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat, has also signed on.

Tarr said Walsh persuaded him to put his name to the bill when he told him about his experience. “He believed it was because of ethnic background and he didn’t come from inherited money,’’ said Tarr.

The embattled 68 Beacon Street owners, hoping to protect their privacy at the nine-story brick building that overlooks the Public Garden, have reached out to other cooperatives in Massachusetts and have hired their own State House lobbyist.

Through their lawyer, Charles Glick, the owners declined to comment.

Finegold, whose political campaigns have gotten generous financial support from Walsh, said he is against the concept of co-ops altogether.

“Why should one group chose their neighbors when the rest of the society can’t chose who they live next door to,’’ he said. “When people get to chose their neighbors, bad things happen. I think it is fundamentally wrong and I don’t think that is what we as a state are about.’’

From the beginning of the battle in 2006, Walsh has played heavily on the theme of discrimination. His former spokesman used terms such as “Ivy League, white, sliver spoon, heirs and heiresses, debutantes and socialites’’ to describe the owners.

In his deposition in his suit against the co-op, Walsh said: “I think they have ancient and archaic values. I think that they do not believe I’m the same class of people that they are.’’ His supporters and the media often noted that the board’s then-president, Jonathan Winthrop, was a direct descendant of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But Walsh’s image, too, took a hard hit when evidence emerged in the federal investigation of former state senator Dianne Wilkerson that he was among several prominent businessmen who gave private donations to the Roxbury lawmaker to help her pay off personal debts. Wilkerson had used her position at the State House to help Walsh in his bitter battle against the co-op owners. As the senate’s only black member, her support gave credence to Walsh’s argument that he faced discrimination.

Walsh said he gave Wilkerson a $10,000 check, dated Oct. 1, 2008, on which he wrote “loan.’’ He said he set no interest rate or terms of repayment and did not get her to sign a promissory note. He claimed he gave the loan because she was financially strapped at the time and that it had no connection to her work to pass his bill.

Both attempts to pass the bill failed after Governor Deval L. Patrick vetoed them.

Walsh believes the changes in the latest bill will mean the outcome will be different this time around.

Within a month after he gave her the loan, Wilkerson, who was defeated in her primary reelection just weeks earlier, was arrested by federal prosecutors on charges of accepting $23,500 in bribes. On June 3, 2010 she pleaded guilty to eight counts of attempted extortion. Walsh’s check to Wilkerson was not part of the federal case.

Frank Phillips can be reached at