PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – You may not know the name Jim Skeffington, but you almost certainly know the fruits of the new Pawtucket Red Sox president’s long career.
Skeffington, a 72-year-old Barrington resident, has been a powerful Rhode Island insider for more than four decades now. His fingerprints are on a host of high-profile projects – many involving some form of public money – that range from Rhode Island Housing and the Rhode Island Convention Center to Providence Place mall and the GTECH building.
“If the big money is moving, Jim Skeffington will be there,” Providence Journal columnist Peter Phipps remarked in 1995. “It’s his specialty.”
Now Skeffington is taking on what may be his highest-profile challenge yet: joining nine other investors to buy the Pawtucket Red Sox from the widow of longtime owner Ben Mondor, and convincing state and local leaders to help them build a new stadium for the team on the vacant former I-195 land in Providence.
“I’m a lifelong Rhode Islander,” Skeffington told reporters Monday. “My grandparents came from Ireland. My parents lived here for many years. I grew up here, went to school here. And I have family here. I met my wife here, married here, raised children here, had a great life with my law firm. I’ve been very blessed in so many ways.”
Buying the PawSox, he said, is “an opportunity to give back to my community, which I feel very strongly about and very passionately about.”
Skeffington and the other new PawSox owners – who include Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, retired CVS Health CEO Tom Ryan and retired Fleet CEO Terry Murray – paid a reported $20 million for the minor-league team. The group said Skeffington will manage it on a day-to-day basis.
Skeffington is an attorney at Locke Lord Edwards LLP, which before a series of mergers was the powerhouse Providence law firm Edwards & Angell. His marquee client is the Boston Red Sox, for whom he’s served as lead counsel on special-development projects such as the team’s Florida stadium.
“He and Larry Lucchino have a very close working business relationship,” Laurie White, who has known Skeffington for more than 30 years and is now president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, told WPRI.com. “I see them together a lot in restaurants, and he’s invited us to lots of events where Larry Lucchino has been present, so this proposal actually doesn’t surprise you one bit.”
More than a half-dozen people who know Skeffington described his skills and accomplishments in glowing terms.
“I consider him to be a tremendous lawyer, the consummate deal-making professional – smart, creative, dynamic and charismatic,” Patrick Rogers, a lawyer at Hinckley Allen & Snyder in Providence who used to work with Skeffington, told WPRI.com. “He’s a legendary Rhode Island legal figure.”
“The man works his butt off,” said Jim Bennett, a businessman who was former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras’s economic-development director as well as a two-time chairman of the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority, which Skeffington helped create. “He really does. He’s a hardworking guy. He puts the time in.”
“It’s the way he’s cool under pressure that I like about him,” Paul DeRoche, a veteran State House lobbyist who’s known Skeffington for two decades, told WPRI.com. “He has an incredible leadership style. He’s laid-back, he doesn’t panic, he gets all the data that he can collect and then he makes a decision.”
Skeffington’s business and personal worlds are deeply intertwined. In addition to Lucchino, he has also done extensive work for CVS and Fleet over the years, while counting both their former chief executives as friends.
And those who know him say he loves sports.
“Jim’s ideal weekend is going to a Boston College football game on Saturday in Boston, followed by a Sunday afternoon at the Patriots, with a trip over to the Sunday evening game at Fenway Park – that’s his ideal weekend,” Rogers said. “He does it throughout the fall; that weekend is a regular occurrence for him. He’s a passionate lover of sports.”
Paul Choquette Jr., vice chairman of construction giant Gilbane, described Skeffington as “an incredible Red Sox fan,” the kind of season-ticket holder who actually goes to as many games as he can. “This is a natural addition to the stuff he’s been doing over the years,” Choquette told WPRI.com.
“I think he’s really earnest when he says he wants to keep the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island and make them the Rhode Island Red Sox, as he puts it,” DeRoche said. But, he added, “I think there are a lot of hurdles he has to climb and go over.” DeRoche said he expects the new PawSox owners to put forward a comprehensive proposal within six months.
James J. Skeffington was born into an Irish Catholic family from Providence that still owns the city’s J.F. Skeffington Funeral Home. He attended La Salle Academy, Boston College and Georgetown University Law Center before returning to Rhode Island, where he began a career in the esoteric legal field of bond finance.
Skeffington rose to prominence during the administration of former Gov. Phil Noel, a Democrat who served from 1973 to 1977 and who has remained close to Skeffington for years. Noel was looking for ways to jump-start a Rhode Island economy that had been hit hard by the pullout of the U.S. Navy.
Skeffington came up with a solution: moral-obligation bonds, a type of debt that quasi-public government agencies can issue without voter approval, which had been pioneered in New York. He wrote the legislation that created both Rhode Island Housing and what later became the Rhode Island Commerce Corp.; the latter agency used that power to lure Curt Schilling’s doomed 38 Studios to Rhode Island, costing taxpayers $90 million when the company went bust. In the 1980s, Skeffington was a driving force behind the debt-funded state convention center project, as well.
That history has given Skeffington critics, among them Steve Frias, Rhode Island’s Republican national committeeman and an expert on the state’s history. “I don’t know Mr. Skeffington – I’ve heard he’s a very nice man,” Frias told WPRI.com. “But I just don’t agree with his policies.”
“He is the godfather of moral-obligation bonds in the state of Rhode Island, which is a means to circumvent the will of the people,” Frias said. “In the context of that time period, bond referendums were being voted down by the people, so this was a means by which, in my opinion, political insiders were able to achieve their objectives without having to get approval from the public.”
“Being somebody who believes in limited government and believing that the public should not be circumvented when it comes to putting them into debt, being responsible for bringing moral-obligation bonds to the state of Rhode Island is not something I’d want in my legacy,” Frias added.
Others saw it differently.
“I think he’s one of the brightest young men in the creative financing business and one of the most energetic that I think I have ever run into,” former Gov. Joe Garrahy, a Democrat, said in 1985. “I relied on Jim Skeffington’s talent not only in the bonding area, where he had a special expertise, but in numerous financing applications that were necessary in state government. Jim was always available.”
Skeffington secured lucrative bond counsel work from the agencies he created, and he acknowledged that was “part of our motivation” for getting them up and running. “It was our hope and expectation that [Rhode Island Housing] would find us sufficiently expert to select us for that job,” he was quoted as saying by The Journal. He ended that relationship when the agency was rocked by scandal in the 1980s.
Bennett, the former convention-center chairman, argued Skeffington’s innovations have allowed the state to make crucial investments in local infrastructure. “The downside is they have to be subsidized, but so do a lot of hospitals and colleges and other goods and services,” he said.
In addition to the quasi-public agencies, Skeffington played an instrumental role in brokering a deal between the state, a developer and a bank that led to the construction of Providence Place, which requires taxpayers to pay the developer at least $3.56 million a year through 2021. He secured deals for Fleet, Fidelity Investments, CVS and other clients, as well, and advocated reducing taxes on wealthier Rhode Islanders to spur job creation.
“He’s an extremely bright attorney,” said former East Providence Mayor Joe Larisa Jr., who tangled with Skeffington during negotiations on the mall deal while working for then-Gov. Lincoln Almond. “He’s been a substantial player in Rhode Island business and economic development,” Larisa said, reiterating Skeffington’s role in birthing moral-obligation bonds.
“No lawyer works harder than Jim Skeffington,” Rogers said. “He works tirelessly – early in the morning, every weekend, late into the evening. He is tireless and energetic, number one. He is incredibly smart and creative.” Choquette said Skeffington possesses both excellent legal skills and a mind for business.
The list of projects Skeffington has been involved in is extremely long. He helped develop Garage C at T.F. Green Airport, and won a Rhode Island Supreme Court case against the airport to retain ownership of it. He was also one of the developers behind the Laurelmead retirement complex on the East Side of Providence.
Not all of the projects Skeffington worked on succeeded. He was criticized in Tiverton for the legal fees he received from an industrial park project there that never got off the ground even as millions of dollars was spent.
Despite his influence, Skeffington is not a registered lobbyist; he has retained longtime State House lobbyist Robert Goldberg to assist him with the PawSox project. Skeffington has also made more than $130,000 in state and federal political contributions over the last few decades, campaign-finance records show. His brother, former state Rep. Jack Skeffington, was famously defeated by a 21-year-old Patrick Kennedy in a 1988 Democratic primary for state representative.
Skeffington will need to use many of the skills and relationships he’s developed over four decades in Rhode Island’s political world to see his dream of a riverside minor-league stadium in Providence come true.
“I have a passion for my state,” he said Monday. “I’ve indicated that I want to give back. This is a state that’s meant a lot to me and my family. I’m committed. My objective is to keep it in Rhode Island. But obviously all I can do is lay out a vision, lay out a plan with my colleagues – Larry, myself and our partners – and let the state decide whether this is something they treasure and are as excited about as we are.”
Bennett spoke for many when he suggested nobody should underestimate Skeffington.
“If there’s anybody who can get this done, he’s certainly got the contacts and the Rolodex and the sense of history in Rhode Island to pull something like this off,” he said.Ted Nesi (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesiTim White contributed to this report.