Wolf gets ethics stay but gov run in doubt
Commission suggests Legislature would need to act
The state Ethics Commission voted to formulate some changes in the conflict of interest law that would allow state Sen. Dan Wolf and other lawmakers with private business interests to keep their seats.
But the commissioners also indicated they were not in favor of altering the rules in a way that would let Wolf serve as governor if he restarted his campaign and won, leaving that task, instead, to the Legislature.
“That does not seem to be on their agenda right now,” Carl Valvo, Wolf’s attorney, said after the commissioners voted 4-1 to begin crafting an exemption to the conflict of interest laws. “That is, obviously, not as happy a result for us but it is one of the possibilities.”
The commission initially gave Wolf an extension to Thursday’s full meeting and then after the meeting his campaign announced the commissioners gave him an “indefinite” stay until the matter is resolved.
“I’m pleased that the commission is going to look at the possibility of drafting an exemption that would allow me to stay in the state Senate and allow me to run for governor,” Wolf said after the hearing but then added, “I’m hopeful.”
Under the ethics law, no state employee can hold any interest in a business that has a no-bid contract with the state. The statute also prohibits anyone with more than 10 percent of “direct or indirect interest” in a private company from doing any work with the state at all. The statute completely bans those in the executive branch from holding any interest at all in a company that does business with the state, a clause that would have barred Wolf form holding the governor’s office even if he sold down his ownership to less than 10 percent.
After a closed-door meeting, the five commissioners indicated they were willing to write some form of regulation to allow an exemption to the no-bid law to further define what constitutes a contract. But the panel gave indications they would not alter the 10 percent rule or the statute as it relates to the executive branch.
“The contracts at issue here are more, from an economic perspective, in the nature of a license or a permission that the state needs to give in order for someone to do private business in which they are not seeking taxpayer money to run that business,” said Commissioner Martin F. Murphy.
Wolf said he will not restart his gubernatorial campaign until there is further clarification from the Ethics Commission. If the commission does not grant him an exemption to continue his campaign, he said he would remain on the political sidelines while waiting for the Legislature to address the issue.
“It’s a practical matter. If there still is an issue over whether I can take office and be in conflict, I think that is a really difficult situation to run a campaign,” Wolf said after the meeting. “We can’t continue to do that under a cloud of uncertainty.”
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause, testified that a 2004 law passed by the Legislature gave the Ethics Commission the power to grant exemptions for unforeseen situations that were not the intent of lawmakers. She pointed out the commission has written 13 exemptions since that time.
“The commission is the right place to create exemptions,” she said. “Ethics laws are actually endangered when they are interpreted overly broad and unfairly.”
Ethics Chairman Charles Swartwood, a former judge, asked why the Legislature should not be the one to fix the problem. Swartwood was the sole vote against new regulations, saying it’s up to the Legislature to clarify its intent and the decision was based on precedent.Wolf pointed out that he is vice chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, where any bill would go to be heard, and said those are the kinds of issues that the Ethics Commission is best situated to deal with.
“I’m concerned about what happens if this is turned over to the Legislature,” he said.