As University of Massachusetts president Robert L. Caret mulled over the final three bids for the university’s $240,000-a-year federal lobbying contract in February, he got a call from the dean of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, Edward J. Markey.
Markey feared that rumors about a cooled relationship between himself and Stephen P. Tocco, the head of one of the bidding firms and one of his former congressional aides, might damage Tocco’s chances of winning the contract. He wanted to assure Caret that all was well between the two.
“I didn’t want [Tocco] to be harmed by something that was untrue,’’ Markey said by telephone last week, noting that it was Tocco who asked him to make the call.
While not illegal, Markey’s call to Caret offers a window into the access and influence that lobbyists — both on Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill — have to the centers of political power.
Bids for big-ticket contracts like the UMass one are awarded through a public procurement process that is designed to eliminated politics and influence in decision-making. Elected officials are supposed to take a hands-off approach, particularly if they have any kind of connection to the bidder.
Asked whether it was appropriate for him to make the call last winter, Markey said he had made it clear to Caret that he was not calling to influence which bidder got the contract.
“I made it crystal clear I wanted the decision to be made exclusively on the merits,’’ Markey said. At the time, Markey was in a primary battle for the Democratic nomination to the US Senate. He went on to win the seat and was sworn in on Tuesday.
Beyond the perception that he might be trying to influence a federal lobbying contract, Markey faces another sensitive issue. His brother John is a partner at Mintz Levin — one of the city’s biggest and most politically connected law firms and the owner of Tocco’s government relations firm, ML Strategies.
Markey brushed aside that issue, saying he only wanted to address the matter of the erroneous stories of a fallout. “The call was not about Mintz Levin at all but only to clarify an erroneous rumor about myself and Steve Tocco,” he said.
John Dunbar, managing editor for politics and finance at the Center For Public Integrity, a Washington-based watchdog group, noted that average citizens or public interest groups are not afforded the kind of favor that Tocco got from Markey.
“What this points up to is the reality of the unequal access to members of the House and Senate,” Dunbar said.
“It doesn’t have to be illegal to be wrong,’’ he added. “Just because it is part of the culture doesn’t mean it is right.”
Caret’s recitation of the conversation that took place last winter is similar to Markey’s description. Caret said he felt no pressure from the congressman, said a spokesman for the UMass president. The spokesman, Robert Connolly, said both men agreed that the decision about the lobbying contract “would be based on the strengths of the proposals.’’
Still, the call added to a sticky political decision that could force Caret to chose sides among some of Boston’s most influential political players and several of its biggest lobbying firms.
At issue is which of three major firms will be awarded the university’s lobbying job in Washington that requires, among other tasks, pushing for more federal funding, while protecting the nearly $600 million in research grants UMass receives each year.
Beyond ML Strategies, the other major firms vying for the contract are ADS Ventures, run by former US representative Chester G. Atkins, and Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, one of New England’s largest public affairs and public relations firms.
Officials at both firms declined to comment.
The UMass president, who has only been in Boston for two years, is now caught in the maze of Massachusetts politics.
Tocco, a former top state official and Republican insider with Democratic connections, was an adviser to Markey’s US Senate race, in addition to once serving on his congressional staff.
He combined his connections with those of Mintz Levin’s to build ML Strategies into one of Boston’s leading government relations firms. Tocco was on the UMass board of trustees until several years ago.
He was then-governor Mitt Romney’s choice to chair the board but was eventually thrown off by Governor Deval L. Patrick.
Tocco, who donated $2,500 to Markey’s Senate campaign and sat in on strategy sessions despite his GOP roots, acknowledged that he asked Markey to call the UMass president because he felt his firm’s bid was being undercut by unfounded rumors that his close relationship with Markey had grown distant.
“When some people were questioning our friendship, I just asked that he make it clear that is just plain wrong,’’ he said.
Tocco’s proposed lobbying team for the UMass contract includes William F. Weld, the former Republican governor whose famed charm is one of the firm’s strongest selling points. But Weld also raises the hackles of many Democrats who now control the UMass board of trustees.
To win the university’s business, ML Strategies will have to compete with two firms with stronger Democratic ties. Atkins, the head of ADS Ventures, is a longtime Democratic political figure in Massachusetts who has built up a Washington lobbying outfit with a strong Capitol Hill network since his defeat for reelection in 1992.
Rasky Baerlein is headed by two former state Democratic political operatives, Larry Rasky, a close friend of Vice President Joseph Biden, and Joseph Baerlein. Its Washington office is heavily staffed with experienced Capitol Hill hands.
Despite the pressure to select a lobbyist, Caret said he is in no rush to award the business.
“Because we are in the process of making a decision, we don’t want to talk about the process in any aspect, including the bidders and the references that they supply,” said Connolly, his spokesman.
Connolly said Caret has three choices: Choose one of the three bidders and face any potential political backlash; retain the university’s current system of hiring on staff a person with Washington experience to fill the job; or do nothing. He noted that the university has gotten by in the last year with the in-house position left vacant.