A change in ethics
State board gives initial approval to changes that will eliminate conflicts with officials who have private businesses doing public work
The State Ethics Commission on Monday proposed making it easier for business owners to run for or hold public office in Massachusetts, allowing executives to retain their stake in a company that does government business as long as the contract is fully disclosed, non-negotiable, and not competitively bid.
“Someone who enters public service should not be required to give up their business interests,” Ethics Commission general counsel Deirdre Roney told the five-member board in explaining the proposed regulations. Roney said the proposed changes also include restrictions to ward off “mischief” that might occur with government officials holding ownership stakes in companies that do business with the state or municipalities. “We don’t want people to use their official position to get some advantageous contractual position,” she said.
The Ethics Commission’s 5-0 vote in favor of the proposed regulations came in response to a petition filed by Sen. Dan Wolf and 11 others. The commission ruled this summer that Wolf would have to quit the Senate and abandon his run for governor because of his 23 percent ownership stake in Cape Air, which has a landing agreement at Logan Airport that the commission determined was a no-bid contract. Ethics regulations bar public employees from holding a no-bid contract with the state.
Wolf said he was pleased the commission agrees there is a problem that needs fixing but, because of the potential conflicts in the regulations that would still exist and the short time frame to mount a credible campaign for governor, he will not restart his campaign. He did say, though, he intends to run for reelection next fall. He said he doesn’t see the proposed regulations as a victory but rather a necessary change to “broaden the electoral process and open it to more people.” He also said it would eliminate the surprise for many officials like him who don’t realize they have potential conflicts.
“For people who currently have a conflict and didn’t know it, this does address a real issue,” he said.
The commission’s draft regulations include restrictions that forbid public officials from having any interaction with or responsibility for an agency their business contracts with. David Giannotti, Public Education and Communications Division Chief for the Ethics Commission, said the regulations would prohibit officials at the state and municipal level from appointing members to boards or commissions that have oversight over agencies with which their companies do business. The new regulations, if adopted, would also bar officials from voting on any matter, including budgets, that affect the agencies they deal with.
If Wolf, for example, were to resume his run for governor and win, the proposed regulation would pose a significant hurdle for him. The governor appoints six members of the Massport board and the seventh is automatically the secretary of transportation, who is also appointed by the governor. The Ethics Commission regulation would bar Wolf from making any of those appointments because Massport oversees Logan Airport, the agency Cape Air deals with on a landing agreement.
The proposed Ethics Commission regulations would only affect public officials whose companies have “pre-existing” contracts with the state, those that predate their entry into public service. Public employees who start a business or who enter into new contracts after they enter government would not be covered by the exemptions.
CommonWealth magazine examined ethics financial statements of legislators and found a number of potential conflicts similar to Wolf’s. Charles Swartwood, chairman of the Ethics Commission, asked Roney if lawmakers owning newspapers, funeral homes, or plowing companies, similar to those cited by CommonWealth, would be covered by the proposed exemptions. Roney said they likely would.Swartwood, who had initially voted against opening the regulations up to change when the matter first came up in September because the commission appeared to be amending its regulation to benefit one person. He said he changed his mind after realizing the new rules would also apply to local officials. He said many local business owners have been barred from running for office because of the restrictions.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said it’s likely the implications of the proposed regulations would be broader for cities and towns than state officials . “There’s one senator out of 40 who is affected by this,” said Beckwith, referring to Wolf’s case. “There are hundreds and hundreds of local officials or potential local officials, so one would imagine this would impact a wider range of people at the local level just because of the sheer numbers.”