The State Ethics Commission is extending the deadline for state Senator Dan Wolf to either resign his seat or divest his interest in his company, Cape Air, a move that allows him to remain in office while he seeks an exemption to the ethics law that bars him from holding public office.
The commission approved a request by Wolf to allow him to continue to hold his seat until at least its Sept. 19 meeting, at which time the senator is expected to ask the five-
member board to consider his request. Initially Wolf, by law, had to make his decision within 30 days of the commission’s Aug. 2 opinion that advised him he could not run for governor or even continue to hold his state Senate seat. He had planned to resign Thursday.
That opinion forced Wolf, a Harwich Democrat, to put his gubernatorial campaign on hold on the grounds that if the decision is upheld, he could not serve as governor without selling off most of his Cape Air holdings. He said he did not want to have to sever his relationship with a company he created 27 years ago.
The commission contends that because Cape Air has contracts with the Massachusetts Port Authority for landing fees at Logan Airport, Wolf is in violation of the law that bans elected officials from having any interest in state contracts.
“I extend my thanks to the commission and its staff for its continuing willingness to further examine this issue, knowing its strong commitment to enforcing and expressing the letter and spirit of the law,’’ Wolf said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
“Until then, I will remain as state senator for the Cape and Islands with hopes of a positive resolution to this matter, which would also allow me to resume my gubernatorial campaign,’’ he said.
Wolf did not address the issue of whether he will seek relief in the courts if the commission rejects his request next month. When the issue first surfaced earlier in August, he indicated he would not take the case to the state courts.
Wolf, who has planned to run on a progressive platform for his gubernatorial campaign, picked up a strong ally Wednesday in his struggle to reverse the commission’s decision when Governor Deval Patrick expressed sympathy for the senator’s predicament.
“The reactions of most people have been — really across political differences — is that the decision may be technically right, but it is practically odd,’’ said Patrick, reflecting what many in the business and civic community see as discouraging entrepreneurs like Wolf who might run for office.
But Patrick, speaking after an event Wednesday afternoon marking the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, also noted that Wolf faces a tough task because the commission has the final say in the matter.
The issue had prompted his supporters on the Cape to plan a rally in his defense at the State House Thursday to protest the commission’s ruling. But that event was put on hold when organizers heard the commission had granted an extension.
“We do not have a victory for those of us who think the commission’s ruling is wrong,” Susan Truitt, a Democratic activist from Osterville, wrote in an e-mail to fellow activists. “But we do have the beginning of what could be a sensible solution. Now is not the time for more heat. Let us pray that cool heads prevail.”
Wolf has argued that the arrangements between Cape Air and MassPort are operating agreements, not negotiated contracts, and that the authority is required to provide them to all airlines. The fees are set by federal regulators.
Wolf’s position has been echoed by Common Cause of Massachusetts, the ethics watchdog group, which said the commission should reassess its position.
“There really appears to be very little opportunity for an actual conflict for the senator, or even the appearance of conflict, given the highly regulated nature of the business,” said its executive director Pamela Wilmot.
Wolf’s problem with the Ethics Commission developed into a public spat after he claimed the commission’s general counsel initially conveyed advice to Wolf’s aide just before Wolf took his state Senate seat in 2010. That advice, he said, “led me to believe no such conflict would exist.”
That prompted an unusual rebuke from the commission. It released an e-mail dated Nov. 23, 2010, in which its general counsel specifically warned the aide that the contracts posed potential legal issues for the senator-elect. It also said that Wolf, after conversations this past spring, proceeded to run for governor despite further warnings from the commission.
“In his dealings with the commission, Senator Wolf was never led to believe that no conflict existed,’’ the Ethics Commission wrote. “In fact, he was advised that he likely had a substantial problem under the conflict law, and that he would be given specific advice after he provided the Massport contracts. Senator Wolf provided the contracts, but announced his intention to run for governor before receiving that advice.”