Our Boston business lawyers have written previously about the issue of slippery slopes in government contracting. It bears repeating in light of a recent case regarding the alleged ethics violations by a supermarket chain and local officials that have landed both in court.
It involves a Stop & Shop grocery store, which had long been planned on Route 10 in Easthampton. A lawsuit has been filed by an opponent of the store, and a Superior Court Judge recently ruled that there is enough evidence in the case to move forward.
The central issue is whether the communications between store representatives and officials with the Easthampton Planning Board back in 2009 and 2010 were in violation of public meeting laws. The discussions were reportedly regarding the permitting process.
Deals with the government simply can not be handled the same way they would be if you were doing business with a private corporation. Not only are you subject to the local ordinances and guidelines, but you also have state and even federal laws to contend with regarding everything from bidding to permitting to planning to billing. If you’re not careful, you could easily wind up entangled in a messy legal battle that could have been avoided with the help of an experienced Boston business lawyer.
In this case, the lawsuit was filed by a man who owns a gas station and car dealership across from the site where the supermarket is planned. That business owner has long opposed the project, saying that the construction of the store will create major traffic headaches that will impede his customers from entering. He claims that the city didn’t follow the proper protocol when they granted the supermarket chain a special permit.
The Superior Court judge held the decision of whether to dismiss the case or allow it to move forward. In choosing the latter, he said that the communications between the store representatives and planning board officials could potentially be construed as lobbying, with the express purpose of influencing the board’s decision.
Now in the regular corporate world, there’s nothing wrong with lobbying or with pushing the case for why your company should be chosen over others. However, when dealing with the government, it can be stressed enough that you have to be extremely careful.
Planning Board officials said in a recent hearing that the meetings had been appropriate and were mostly intended to discuss scheduling and certain procedural aspects of the process. However, lawyers representing the gas station and dealership owner contend that the meetings were an effort to “gauge the temperature” of the different board members. Where it rises to the level of possible illegal conduct is the allegation, supported by documentation, that board members may have instructed the supermarket representative on how to best present the information at the next public meeting in order to gain permit approval.
Previously, the board had denied the special permitting for the store because there were zoning ordinance violations with regard to the proposed parking lot. But a few months later, a scaled-down proposal was granted permitting by the board.
Attorneys for the city say that the supermarket could still move ahead with plans to build while the lawsuit is pending, but if a judge ultimately decides to overturn the board’s initial permitting decision, the store will be the one held liable. That would be a costly position to be in.
Such situations can be avoided with guidance from an experienced Boston business lawyer.
The Brown Law Firm, LLC, has offices in Belmont and Boston. For a free and confidential consultation, call 617-489-0817 or contact us online.