“Either the Red Sox bamboozled the attorney general or the AG’s office simply didn’t do its homework.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, who proudly refers to her office as the “People’s Law Firm,” has allowed the Boston Red Sox to slide on its so-called cashless payment system at Fenway Park—a process that violates a state law clearly requiring merchants to accept cash. At the same time, the system appears to be operationally dysfunctional.
When the Sox first unveiled the cashless payments in April, some observers quickly pointed out that it was illegal under an unambiguous Massachusetts law which states: “No retail establishment offering goods and services for sale shall discriminate against a cash buyer by requiring the use of credit by a buyer in order to purchase such goods and services. All such retail establishments must accept legal tender when offered as payment by the buyer.”
The intent of the law is to prevent discrimination against people who do not have access to credit cards. A number of states and cities have similar laws.
The ballpark’s current cashless payment system is a workaround. Fans without a credit or debit card who want to purchase food or a souvenir must first convert their cash to a prepaid card using what’s known as a “reverse ATM” machine. To do that, they can insert their cash ($5 minimum) into the machine and out is supposed to pop a debit Mastercard that can be used for purchases at the park and elsewhere.
Based on information provided to her by Red Sox officials, Healey, who is the odds-on-favorite to be the next governor, claims that the cashless payment system at Fenway Park is free to use, even though it isn’t. Her office also says that there is no expiration date for the cards—even though a visit to the park for this article showed that there is, and that the system is deeply flawed.
In the entire park, for example, there are only three machines that dispense the prepaid cards. And two of them failed to work—crisp new bills that were inserted came popping right back out. Team employees who were asked for help had no luck either.
The machines were also hard to find—there were no signs posted anywhere telling fans where to find them, and there were no signs on the machines themselves identifying what they are for.
There also was no disclosure on the machines about any fees. Once starting the purchase process, though, a small button appears in the corner of the screen, which if pressed—although there’s no requirement to do so—reveals that there’s a $2.95 monthly “dormancy fee” deducted from the card’s balance just after 92 consecutive days of nonuse. The back of the card that came out, however, said the dormancy fee was actually $3.95 a month.
The card also comes with an expiration date, contrary to what the AG’s office and the Red Sox have said. Fans are not told beforehand that the cards expire.
Initially, Healey expressed concern about the operation of the cashless payment system at Fenway Park.
“I know it’s a problem because not everybody has moved to plastic,” Healey told WGBH in April. “The question is whether that really is equitable and fair to people, so it’s something that my office is currently looking at and engaging with them on, because we want to make sure that people have an ability to use cash at the park.”
But by the very next day, Healey had completed her review—“one of the speediest attorney general reviews in history,” one observer called it. The AG has since put her imprimatur on the cashless payment system at Fenway Park.
As part of the justification for her decision, Healey’s press officials repeatedly but incorrectly told reporters that there are no fees and no expiration dates associated with the use of the cashless system, according to copies of emails retrieved via the Massachusetts public records law.
“The law says that people need to be able to go in and make purchases using legal tender,” Healey told reporters. “Traditionally that was known as cash, but as long as there are systems that are in place that allow for the use of cash, essentially through these cards, that’s going to, we think, work out.”
Consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, who first discovered the existence of the dormancy fee in April, is critical of the cashless payment system at Fenway Park.
“Either the Red Sox bamboozled the attorney general or the AG’s office simply didn’t do its homework,” said Dworsky, who is founder of consumerworld.org and himself a former Mass assistant attorney general. “Either way, the AG should never have greenlighted the Red Sox plan to go cashless in the face of an unambiguous state law requiring all merchants to accept cash. Dinging a consumer’s cashless card almost $4 every 30 days after just 92 days of non-use is outrageous.”
Longtime columnist Peter Lucas said that Healey’s decision to put her stamp of approval on the cashless payment system at Fenway Park is politically motivated and not legally based.
“Politics is a business of doing favors, even if sometimes skirting the laws you are supposed to enforce,” Lucas wrote. “A perfect example is the solid that Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democratic candidate for governor, did last week to John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Globe. Be nice to Henry and the Boston Globe … and the paper will return the favor … with friendly coverage … Despite Healey sucking up to the Red Sox—and the Boston Globe—the statute on the matter is quite clear. It is illegal to prohibit cash payment.”
Healey’s office was first contacted for this story in mid-July, specifically regarding problems with the cashless payment system at Fenway Park. Nothing came of it, but near the end of July, Healey’s director of communications, Jillian Fennimore, responded, “We are in communication with Fenway about the implementation of the cash-kiosk, including dormancy fees and disclosure to consumers. I will follow up with you when I have more information to provide.”
In response to a second follow-up inquiry in August, Fennimore said, “I’ll get you more information as soon as possible.”
Last month, this reporter sent two more questions to Fennimore: Does Attorney General Healey still think that the cashless payment system at Fenway Park is legal? And, What, if anything, has Attorney General Healey done to fix the cashless payment problems at Fenway Park—a system that would be used by less-advantaged citizens?
Fennimore ignored the inquiry.
Zineb Curran, vice president of corporate communications for the Red Sox, did not respond to requests for comment.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org.
Colman M. Herman is a freelance investigative reporter. Most recently he has been writing about sexual misconduct and bullying at Boston Public Schools. He broke the story on the City of Boston refusing to release a critical report on sexual misconduct and bullying at the Mission Hill School in Jamaica Plain. Herman also writes about the many problems with the Massachusetts Public Records Law, the state’s counterpart to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).