Patrick gets donation after Kraft gets state help

The Patrick administration’s decision in November to designate 500 acres near Gillette Stadium in Foxborough as a special growth district was good news for the Kraft Group, which owns the New England Patriots.


The move made it eligible for expedited permitting and state infrastructure money as it works to build an office and research park on the site.


Less than a month later, Patriots owner Robert Kraft donated the maximum allowable amount of $500 to Gov. Deval Patrick’s campaign committee. It was Kraft’s first political contribution ever to Patrick, according to state records.


Several days after that, Kraft gave another $5,000 — again, the maximum allowable — to the Massachusetts Democratic Party, his first contribution to it in more than four years. The party is chaired by John Walsh, Patrick’s former campaign manager, and controlled by the governor as he readies for a 2010 re-election campaign.


The timing of the state approval and the political donations is troubling, one government watchdog said.


"That’s exactly the kind of appearance problems that lead us to support public financing of elections. There may be no connections between the actions, but the appearance is one that leaves the public scratching their heads," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts and member of a panel Patrick recently used to recommend a tightening of state ethics laws.


Such "appearance problems" are reminiscent of the kind of cozy Beacon Hill relationships that Patrick deplored during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign. In a Nov. 2, 2006, debate, he scoffed at rival Christy Mihos when the independent candidate suggested Patrick was making deals with special interest donors.


"Well, they are going to be sorely disappointed if they think there’s some quid pro quo," Patrick said. "What I’m delivering is leadership and inclusion."


On Friday, the governor denied any link between the state designation in November that benefited Kraft and Kraft’s subsequent donations that benefited him.


When asked about Kraft’s donation to him, the governor implied he didn’t know about it and said, "Is that right?" And when asked about Kraft’s donation to the state party, Patrick smiled and said, "That’s great."


Patrick went on to say he had "a great relationship" with Kraft and did not believe the donations were in exchange for the state’s assistance to Kraft.


"He’s been really supportive," Patrick said. "He’s given me all kinds of advice and introductions. It’s been terrific. And from the perspective of economic growth, the Kraft organization has been enormously important in terms of job growth, so (I’m) looking forward to partnering with him on Patriot Place and other projects."


At that point, a Patrick aide cut off the questioning.


A Kraft spokesman, Stacey James, said Kraft was out of the office and unavailable for comment.


Kraft has transformed himself into a major civic figure during the past decade through his ownership of the Patriots. His family has turned a hard-luck team into a three-time Super Bowl champion, while also overseeing construction of Gillette Stadium and, more recently, the Patriot Place shopping and entertainment complex in one of its parking lots.


Before the stadium’s construction, Kraft famously threatened to move the team to Hartford, Conn., but he decided to stay — and paid the bulk of the $325 million tab for the stadium himself — after Massachusetts agreed in 1999 to spend $70 million on infrastructure improvements in the area.


Now, Kraft is eyeing development of nearby land he owns across Route 1 and again has looked to the state for help.


On Nov. 20, the Patrick administration announced it was including a 500-acre zone that encompasses the stadium and Patriot Place in its Growth Districts Initiative. Under the program, the state agrees to expedite permitting and provide money for improvements, such as road upgrades.


Kraft’s preliminary plans call for construction of a 1.5 million square foot office park, as well as a 150,000 square foot retail center. The state would likely assist with water and sewer and perhaps some roadway work.


Kraft’s $500 contribution to Patrick was logged Dec. 19, the same day the governor’s political committee reported about $30,000 in contributions to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Most of them came from a Dec. 15 fundraiser at the Boston law firm of Mintz Levin, but spokesmen for Kraft and Patrick would not say if the owner attended that event.


On Dec. 24, the committee reported the $5,000 donation to the state Democratic Party.


In between those two dates, Patrick joined Kraft in the Gillette Stadium owner’s box during a snowy Dec. 21 game between the Patriots and Arizona Cardinals.


Patrick aides were indignant at the time over inquiries about the governor’s presence. They said he was paying a courtesy call while visiting the stadium on official business for a military re-enlistment ceremony.


The Massachusetts Republican Party scoffed at that explanation.


"I’m going to throw a flag on this play," said spokesman Barney Keller. "The appearance of a quid pro quo is apparent to anyone who looks at this."


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Date: 1/9/2009 12:00:00 AM