Ethics Commission revises conflict law

Lets public officials with businesses do work for state, cities

State Sen. Dan Wolf can keep his day job.

The State Ethics Commission today finalized a change in regulations that will allow officials at the state and local level who own businesses with state contracts to stay in office without having to forfeit either their stake in their companies or give up the contracted work.

“The Commission approved a regulatory exemption that is intended to allow business men and women to enter public service without having to make a choice between giving up their business interests or serving in a public position,” Commission Chairman Barbara Dortch-Okara said in a statement, adding the change was a “fair and reasonable application of the law.”

Today’s changes, which should go into effect in about two weeks after they are approved and published by the Secretary of State’s office, will also have a big impact at the municipal level. When Wolf and nine others filed a petition last fall to change the regulation, the proposal focused on state officials. But, in hearings before the board, it became clear that local officials were similarly, if not more extensively, impacted by the regulations.

The changes now allow, for instance, a mayor or a selectman who owns a company that does business with the community to participate in both government and commercial ventures if those contracts started before they became a public employee or appointed official. Commissioners even approved language that would allow business owners who don’t have a current contract with government to enter into one after they enter public service as long as they had a “substantially similar” contract within five years of the start of their appointment or election.

“We do not want to discourage people who are actively in business from running for office,” said Commissioner William Trach, who proposed extending the window for prior contracts from one year to five years.

The issue initially came to light last summer when the commission issued an opinion to Wolf, who was running for governor at the time, that he was in violation of the state’s conflict of interest laws because his company, Cape Air, had a landing arrangement at Logan Airport. The commission determined that the deal was a state contract and because he owned more than the 10 percent allowed by law – he owned 23 percent of the company at the time – he would have to resign as senator, get rid of his interest in Cape Air, or have the airline stop flying in and out of Logan.

In addition, the ruling said he could not become governor because the deal – in which the company paid set landing fees to Massport – was a no-bid contract. The law says no official can hold any part of a company that has a no-bid contract with an agency he or she works for. In the case of the governor, that would encompass most of state government.

Wolf suspended his gubernatorial campaign and announced that, without a change from the Ethics Commission, he would step down as senator rather than sell off the company he helped found 25 years ago. He received an indefinite extension for compliance from Ethics officials and, with Thursday’s ruling, now he can remain in office. But he has abandoned his run for governor altogether.

The new regulations carve out an exemption for officials whose business interests predate their entry into public life. CommonWealth ran a story at the time that showed at least four other lawmakers with potential conflicts under a strict reading of the law. One of those lawmakers, state Rep. Steven Howitt, a Republican from Seekonk, did snowplowing for the state as part of a company that had been in his family for decades. He gave up the contract when he was elected.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

The Ethics Commission change would reopen the door for Wolf to run for governor, but he says it’s too late. “It’s a bittersweet ruling,” Wolf said. He said he was glad the regulations had been changed but the changes came too late for his gubernatorial bid. “The clock just ran out,” he said.

Wolf said he returned the money he raised for the governor’s bid and let his donors know they could cash the check and pocket the money or do nothing and he would transfer the donation into his Senate account to fund his reelection bid in the fall. When he last checked about two or three weeks ago, he said about half of his donors were pocketing the money and the other half were allowing him to keep it.

Bruce Mohl contributed to this report.