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Lynch’s wife tied to agencies he won grants for

BY THE NUMBERS Margaret Lynch is now paid between $50,000 and $55,000 a year for her work at the South Boston center. BY THE NUMBERS
Margaret Lynch is now paid between $50,000 and $55,000 a year for her work at the South Boston center.
By Marino Eccher
Globe Correspondent / November 10, 2009

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US Representative Stephen F. Lynch has engineered four federal grants for a community health center and another three grants for a nearby substance abuse program, organizations for which his wife, Margaret, is an employee or board member.

Lynch arranged the passage of $760,430 in federal earmarks for the South Boston Community Health Center. Margaret Lynch is the center’s director of marketing and development. Earmarks totaling $881,018 were appropriated for the Gavin Foundation, a residential substance abuse program. Lynch’s wife was named to the foundation’s unpaid board just after it received its first earmark in 2003.

The earmarks for the two organizations totaled $1.64 million. For both organizations, the funding was for substance abuse services. Lynch could cite no instance in which he has obtained earmarked funds for any other substance abuse treatment facility in his district, which includes much of the southern part of Boston and 19 other cities and towns.

For the coming fiscal year, Lynch is seeking $190,000 more for the health center and an additional $350,000 for the Gavin Foundation, according to Lynch’s official US House website. This year, for the first time, members of Congress are required to disclose requests for earmarks, which are congressionally mandated expenditures that House and Senate members have long used to fund favored projects in their districts.

In an interview, Lynch said there has been no favoritism involved in the funding, and that his wife has received no financial benefit from the earmarks. He also provided the Globe with a copy of a letter he sought in 2007 from the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct, five years after the health center’s first earmark. The letter concluded that Margaret Lynch had no financial interest in the earmark. Meaghan Maher, a spokeswoman for Lynch, said he had received similar clearance verbally before 2007, the first year in which House members were required to disclose in writing potential financial interests in earmarks.

“I’m proud of the work that my wife does,’’ Lynch said. “She does not benefit by the work I’m doing here in Congress.’’ Lynch said the funding for both organizations has been used to treat and prevent substance abuse and provide mental health services for at-risk young people in South Boston. The programs, he said, “do great work in the community.’’

Margaret Lynch, in an e-mail Friday, wrote: “My work with the South Boston Community Health Center and my volunteer work with the Gavin Foundation/Cushing House recovery program is intentionally quite public. I believe passionately in the mission of both organizations and am proud of the volunteer work I do with the Gavin Foundation. We are mending families and saving young lives.’’

Lynch’s focus on funding substance abuse programs via earmarks does not extend beyond the two South Boston organizations. In the Ninth Congressional District, which includes about 10 percent of the state’s population, Lynch has been the sole sponsor of just one other earmark for a community health center - a $329,670 appropriation in 2008 for Harbor Health Services, which operates two health centers in Dorchester.

In 2007, along with Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, Lynch was cosponsor of a $303,294 earmark for the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center. Eleven of the South Boston Community Health Center’s 21 current officers and board members have contributed a total of $18,750 to Lynch’s congressional campaigns since his election in 2001, according to federal campaign reports published by the Center for Responsive Politics, which closely monitors the nexus between contributions and federal funding.

Steve Ellis, vice president of programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group in Washington, said any earmark directed to an organization with personal ties to a congressman can be troubling, even if fully disclosed.

“While both of these may be laudable organizations achieving important goals, it always concerns us when lawmakers are directing federal funding towards entities that their family is involved in,’’ Ellis said.

Ellis said Taxpayers for Common sense is not critical of the goals of the health center or the foundation. Instead, he said, the organization is concerned about an appropriations system with the potential to award funds based on personal ties, rather than merit. He said the current earmark system, which presidential candidate John McCain often derided in the 2008 campaign, is “a broken process.’’

Lynch’s efforts on behalf of the two organizations date to his service in the Massachusetts Senate. He was elected to the House seat in a special election in 2001. William J. Halpin Jr., the health center’s chief executive, said that when he came aboard as director in 1998, the center was “in financial crisis.’’ Halpin, in an interview, said that Lynch arranged for state funding of $771,000 “and got us bailed out.’’

The year before, the health center had a $1.8 million deficit, according to Halpin, who said he had “sleepless nights’’ about the finances, including whether he would have enough money to pay his staff.

That assistance came two years after Margaret Lynch went to work at the health center. Lynch said in her e-mail that she reduced her hours from 35 to 27.5 hours a week in 2004 because of child-care demands, with a proportionate reduction in her salary. On Friday, Maher, Lynch’s spokeswoman, said Margaret Lynch is now paid between $50,000 and $55,000 a year.

As director of marketing and development, Margaret Lynch organizes the center’s fund-raising events, handles its advertising operations, contributes to its website design, and responds to media requests, according to Halpin. John McGahan, president and chief executive of the Gavin Foundation, called Stephen Lynch “the driving force’’ behind the expansion of the foundation’s Cushing House - a residential addiction recovery center for young men and women.

The program has gone from 12 beds in 1999 to 30 beds today. The expansion also added a wing for young women to the previously men’s-only program. McGahan said that it was Lynch’s intercession, while a state senator in 1999, that generated the state funds that were used to start the Cushing House.

“What Congressman Lynch has done for Cushing House and Gavin Foundation has been done for the right reason, and every dollar has gone to help those youngsters,’’ McGahan said. Margaret Lynch became a board member in April 2003, a month after the foundation sent her husband a letter thanking him for the first federal earmark he sponsored for Cushing House, according to McGahan.

He said Margaret Lynch was invited on the board by the late James Sweeney, the foundation’s president at the time. Bringing her on, McGahan said, “seemed like a no-brainer,’’ given the work she and her husband had done for the community.

This article was prepared for a course in investigative reporting at Northeastern University. Marino Eccher’s work was overseen and this article was edited by Northeastern journalism professor Walter V. Robinson, former editor of the Globe Spotlight Team. Robinson can be reached at wrobinson@globe.com. Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.