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BRA official asked help from mosque backer

Pushed for mayoral visit to Mideast during talks

A Boston Redevelopment Authority official involved with the city's decision to reduce the price of land it sold to the Islamic Society of Boston for a Roxbury mosque asked a Saudi Arabian supporter of the project to help plan a trip to the Middle East for Mayor Thomas M. Menino and two of his political allies, according to BRA documents.

Muhammad Ali-Salaam, the BRA's deputy director for special projects, wrote to Esam Mudeer shortly after the Saudi television executive had met with Menino in Boston in 1998 to discuss the mosque project.

On BRA letterhead, Ali-Salaam wrote that after Mudeer's meeting with Menino, the mayor "demonstrated his support for our efforts" and that Dr. Walid Al-Fitaihi, then trustee of the Islamic Society, suggested to BRA director Thomas O'Brien that he "visit the Kingdom."

O'Brien agreed, according to Ali-Salaam's letter, and the BRA staff recommended that the mayor, three of his aides, and two political allies also be included on the trip. "The necessary protocol and planning for such a venture is beyond my capacity, and I request your assistance," Ali-Salaam wrote.

He said the people who would participate in the trip -- in addition to Ali-Salaam, Menino, and O'Brien -- would include BRA chairman Clarence Jones, BRA board member Joseph Nigro, and two state legislators he identified as political allies of the mayor, Senator Dianne Wilkerson and Representative Gloria Fox. "Wouldn't this be a fitting way to express our gratitude for their support and encouragement?" Ali-Salaam wrote.

The letter does not specify who would pay for the trip, and it is unclear whether planning went any further than Ali-Salaam's letter. City officials said last week that the trip never took place. Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce said that the mayor did not authorize or have any knowledge of the proposal to travel to Saudi Arabia.

But the document, reviewed by the Globe, raises new questions about Ali-Salaam's role on the project, as well as his relationship with the Islamic Society and outside advocates of the mosque while he negotiated a land deal on behalf of Boston taxpayers.

The state conflict of interest law prohibits public officials from seeking or personally receiving anything valued at $50 or more if it is being given to influence a present act, induce a future act, or reward a past act, according to State Ethics Commission guidelines. The law also prohibits officials from engaging in activities that create the appearance of a conflict of interest, unless they disclose potential conflicts to their appointing authorities.

In the past, BRA officials have said that Ali-Salaam has been in "full-compliance with conflict of interest law and state ethics standards" in his work on the mosque project and that Ali-Salaam kept agency officials well informed of his activities.

A spokeswoman for the Ethics Commission said agency policy prohibits confirming or denying whether any public official is under investigation.

The sale of land to the Islamic Society of Boston and Ali-Salaam's role have been the subject of controversy. A lawsuit by Boston resident James C. Policastro in November 2004 alleged that the assistance given by the BRA to the Islamic Society constituted a violation of the First Amendment prohibiting government establishment of religion. That suit was dismissed earlier this year. Another suit was brought by the Islamic Society charging 17 individuals and entities with conspiring to defame the society in order to block construction of the mosque.

Documents released in the course of those suits have shown that Ali-Salaam traveled to the Middle East, where he raised funds for the project. They also showed he was one of the main city officials involved in the BRA's sale of 1.9 acres to the Islamic Society in 2003 for $175,000 plus a package of community benefits including the creation of an Islamic library. The appraised value of the parcel was $400,000.

Ali-Salaam's letter on a trip to Saudi Arabia for city officials is among documents released by the BRA after a Suffolk Superior Court judge earlier this month ordered they be turned over to a Jewish advocacy group, The David Project, which sued the agency in October 2006 for access to documents related to the mosque project. The documents, some 1,600 pages, were obtained by the Globe through a state open records request.

The newly released documents also include correspondence between Ali-Salaam and Islamic Society officials, in which the BRA official counsels the society on how to negotiate with his agency to get the best deal in their effort to build a mosque, Islamic cultural center, and school on a 45,000-square-foot parcel in Roxbury Crossing.

In one memorandum, marked "confidential" dated Sept. 22, 1989, Ali-Salaam tells Islamic Society trustees that the BRA sold a Roxbury parcel to the US Postal Service several years earlier for $16 per square foot, but he advised the trustees that a Bank of Kuwait appraisal of the potential society land put the value at $6.50 per square foot. He advised the society that the lower figure could be used when negotiating a purchase and said the purchase price could be reduced further by adding community benefits to the project.

Another piece of correspondence in the documents sheds more light on Ali-Salaam's fund-raising for the project and suggests he was aware of the potential for a conflict between his interests as a public official and as a representative of the Islamic Society. In a fax to an Islamic Society trustee in 1998, Ali-Salaam said he had contacted the United Bank of Kuwait about financing for the project and had obtained a letter of interest but had to have the bank official, David Shlosh, rewrite the letter because Ali-Salaam was concerned about violating the state conflict of interest law.

"I contacted the Bank of Kuwait, and they forwarded a letter of interest for the project; however it was addressed to me," Ali-Salaam wrote in the Oct. 21, 1998, fax on BRA letterhead. "In order to avoid any potential for a conflict of interest, I asked David to re-write the letter and address it to you."

BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree yesterday declined to say whether Ali-Salaam broke any agency rules or acted inappropriately. She also declined to say whether BRA officials approved of his asking the Saudi executive to help arrange a trip to Saudi Arabia. She said no other any agency officials besides Ali-Salaam traveled to the Middle East. "While the media and special interests try to revisit these issues . . . the court finished its consideration of them by dismissing the lawsuit against the BRA on Feb. 16, 2007," Elsbree said in a statement.

A lawyer for Ali-Salaam also declined to answer questions about the documents.

Ali-Salaam has worked at the city's development agency since 1985 and currently collects an annual salary of $109,758. It is unclear whether he is still involved with the mosque project, whose completion has been delayed by funding problems and controversy over extremist remarks by two former officials of the society.

A spokeswoman for the Islamic Society said that the mosque project is being unfairly scrutinized and that other religious organizations have received similar treatment from the BRA. Jessica Masse, interfaith coordinator for the Islamic Society, said the BRA has conveyed land to 16 other religious organizations. She said Ali-Salaam is a person of "excellent character" who helped the society navigate city bureaucracy and "make the best decisions possible."

"He was a public servant helping the public, in this case, an Islamic organization, work through a bureaucratic process," she said in a statement. "I would assume the 16 other religious organizations had the same type of assistance, and it would be interesting to ask them if public officials of the same faith helped them."

The BRA provided a list of religious organizations that have received land under the renewal program since 1962, but declined yesterday to provide details including the size of the parcels sold or the total prices paid by the religious organizations. Elsbree also declined to say whether BRA officials who were members of the churches advocated on the organizations' behalf in the deals.