BOSTON — A group of prominent lawyers and former judges have signed on to a petition to the State Ethics Commission seeking a regulatory change that would allow Sen. Daniel Wolf to remain in the Senate and continue his campaign for governor by exempting certain non-negotiable contracts with the state from triggering conflict of interest law violations.
Common Cause Massachusetts, a group dedicated to holding elected officials accountable to public interests, released the petition filed Thursday with the commission seeking a regulatory change that will be considered by the commission when it meets next on Sept. 19.
The petition has been signed by Wolf, former Attorneys General Frank Bellotti and Scott Harshbarger, former U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, Tufts Health Plan CEO James Roosevelt, Republican Rep. Daniel Winslow and a handful of other judges and former Ethics Commission commissioners.
Others signatories to the petition include Elizabeth Dolan, former justice of the Massachusetts Superior and Probate courts and a former commissioner of State Ethics Commission; Nancy Gertner, a former U.S. federal judge for the District Court in Boston; Jeanne Kempthorne, former assistant U.S. attorney and ethics commissioner; Augustus Wagner, a former justice of the Massachusetts Superior and Probate courts and former chair of the Ethics Commission, and Thomas Zampino, former deputy chief of the Ethics Commission’s legal division.
“Section 7 of the conflict of interest law is a gotcha sort of statute; its reach is way beyond what anyone would anticipate, even with a keen sensitivity toward ethical issues,” Kempthorne said in a statement. “Sensible regulation is necessary and appropriate because section 7 reaches conduct that does not pose a real risk of a conflict of interest. It sometimes encroaches on private business interests needlessly and can impinge on important public interests like the freedom to run for office.”
The commission issued an advisory opinion last month finding Wolf in violation of the conflict of interest statute because of agreements his airline Cape Air has with the Massachusetts Port Authority to operate at Logan International Airport. The commission told Wolf he could stop flying through Logan, divest himself from the company, or resign his Senate seat and end his campaign for governor.
Wolf planned to resign last week, but was given an extension until Sept. 19 to comply with the law so that he could present the petition seeking a regulatory change exempting business owners such as himself in cases where contracts with the state are not publicly bid and the fees are non-negotiable, such as the case with Cape Air.
The proposed exemption would allow an elected state employee to have a financial interest in a contract with the state as long as the state employee has never participated in setting the terms of the contract, that it remains standard and non-negotiable, and that the official publicly discloses relevant information about the contract.
“We believe that this proposal addresses real problems without opening new loopholes in the law, “said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Even if this exemption were to be invoked, all of the other provisions of the ethics law continue to apply including § 6, which requires a state employee to abstain in his official capacity from personally participating in a particular matter that would foreseeably affect his or his family’s financial interests. The Ethics Commission is the appropriate body to evaluate the matter—they are neutral, know the law, and are unlikely to create an exemption that creates a real risk of conflict of interest.”
At its next public meeting, the Ethics Commission will hear the petition, and would then need to decide whether to formally pursue a regulation.