Michael A. Sullivan, whose campaign for Middlesex district attorney has been bedeviled by ethical questions, says that he wishes he had not taken a secretive $6,000-a-month consulting contract with a Cambridge real estate developer after he took office as the elected clerk of Middlesex Superior Court in 2007.
“I wish that back then, someone had advised me otherwise because my good name means a lot to me,’’ Sullivan said in an interview last week. He added: “I didn’t do anything wrong, but the appearance bothers me.’’
Sullivan served for 14 years as a Cambridge city councilor, and four of those as the city’s mayor, a position filled by the City Council. He was elected to the clerk’s post in 2006. And he clung to the council position — and its $60,000 annual salary — until August 2007, when he resigned amid rising public concern about possible conflicts of interest because he held two elected positions.
Ten weeks after he relinquished the council post, Sullivan agreed to a consulting arrangement with Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a development firm with major properties in Cambridge that often required city approvals. Over 16 months, from October 2007 through January 2009, the company paid Sullivan $91,350, according to tax returns that Sullivan made available to the Globe. He said he did the consulting work at night and on weekends.
Sullivan had refused to identify the consulting firm until the Globe recently pressed him to do so. Ethics rules that govern the conduct of court clerks discourage outside work that might raise conflicts of interest or which in any way undermines public confidence in the judiciary. Sullivan acknowledged in the interview that he never asked a court ethics committee whether the consulting work was permissible.
The consulting contract is one of two ethical issues facing Sullivan in the closing days before the Sept. 9 primary election between him and Marian Ryan, who was appointed district attorney in 2013.
The second involves Sullivan’s decision to retain his City Council post after he took office as court clerk in January 2007, even though an ethics advisory panel of the Supreme Judicial Court advised him not to, because of numerous potential conflicts of interest. Under public pressure, he resigned from the council seven months later.
‘I wish that back then, someone had advised me otherwise because my good name means a lot to me. I didn’t do anything wrong, but the appearance bothers me.’Michael Sullivan
Those issues have at times overshadowed the debate over whether he is qualified to replace Ryan, whose own judgment and management have come under fire.
Sullivan, 55, is the son and grandson of former Cambridge mayors. He holds the elected clerk’s position that his uncle, Edward Sullivan, held from 1959 until Michael Sullivan replaced him in 2007.
In some respects, Sullivan is a product of a generations-old Cambridge political culture into which he was born, where nepotism and political perks are acceptable. In his clerk’s office, two of his highest paid deputies are his cousins, both hired decades ago by his uncle.
When Sullivan arrived in Harvard Square on Tuesday for an interview that focused in part on whether he has used public office for private gain, he alighted from a large black SUV with a driver. The car, leased by his campaign for $870.64 a month, was left parked in a tow zone for an hour.
The Middlesex prosecutor’s office is the state’s largest; the county has 23 percent of the state’s population. And for the county’s district attorneys, it has been a reliable steppingstone to the attorney general’s office.
This year, though, both of the Democratic candidates — there is no Republican candidate — have faced challenges about their qualifications. Ryan, who was appointed in 2013 by Governor Deval Patrick when Gerard Leone resigned, has been criticized by former subordinates for her judgment and temperament. And last month, the Globe reported that Ryan had withheld from the public portions of a critical outside review of whether her office could have taken steps to prevent the slaying of Jennifer Martel by her abusive boyfriend, Jared Remy. Ryan commissioned the report after her office was criticized because prosecutors did not request bail when Remy was arrested on charges that he assaulted Martel. Remy pleaded guilty earlier this year to murdering Martel a day after he was released.
But Sullivan’s attempts to gain political traction from Ryan’s woes have been stymied by questions about his own behavior as a public official.
Ryan has accused him of trying to hide the consulting arrangement — from the public and from state high court officials who, according to legal experts consulted by the Globe, would probably have urged him not to take it.
During several interviews last week, Sullivan has said he saw no need to ask the Supreme Judicial Court panel whether the consulting work would raise conflict-of-interest concerns, even though he had sought their opinion about keeping his council seat just months before.
Sullivan said the work was all done after hours and focused solely on advising Alexandria officials on implementing community benefits packages they had negotiated with the city.
Under judicial canons, elected and appointed clerk-magistrates are prohibited from practicing law. However, his tax returns for 2007 and 2008 record the consulting fees as legal income. When the Globe called this to his attention, Sullivan said he had not reviewed the returns, and said his tax accountant had made a mistake.
Documenting what Sullivan did for Alexandria is not possible because, he said, he signed a confidentiality agreement that bars him from discussing the work.
Frustrated by the public focus on these issues, Sullivan said he regrets not having given more consideration to the wisdom of taking the consulting contract. If he is elected district attorney, he said, he would not do any outside work.
In the interview, Sullivan acknowledged that he asked the Supreme Judicial Court advisory panel whether he could keep his City Council position after he was elected clerk in 2006.
The panel, in its response, said it would be “problematic’’ for him to keep his council seat. The panel cited the number of lawsuits involving the city that were already before the Superior Court; the frequency with which Cambridge criminal matters were handled by the court; and the likelihood that lawyers he dealt with as a councilor would have business before the court.
Sullivan opted not to follow the panel’s advice. But, he said, criticism of his decision to keep both elected posts prompted him to relinquish the council position. The controversy, he said, “wasn’t worth it.”Walter V. Robinson can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this article had the incorrect first name of former Middlesex DA Gerard Leone.