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State panel fires back at gubernatorial candidate

Candidate for governor Dan Wolf spoke during the 2013 Massachusetts Democratic Party Platform Convention.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Candidate for governor Dan Wolf spoke during the 2013 Massachusetts Democratic Party Platform Convention.

The State Ethics Commission, in an unusual public rebuke of a Beacon Hill lawmaker, is disputing state Senator Dan Wolf’s assertions that the agency had not previously raised a red flag about the potential ethics violations posed by the two contracts that his firm, Cape Air, has with the Massachusetts Port Authority.

The potential conflict came to light Wednesday, after Wolf, a Democrat who recently launched a bid for governor, made public an ethics ruling saying that he would have to exit the race and public office if he did not either divest from Cape Air or pull the airline out of the airport.

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In a statement Thursday, the commission said that as far back as 2010, when Wolf was elected to the Senate, he was advised that he should check to see if his airline had any contracts with a state agency, because that could be a conflict of interest. MassPort, which operates Logan International Airport, is a quasi-
public agency whose board is controlled by the governor.

“Senator Wolf did not follow up on that advice, nor did he inform the commission of Cape Air’s contracts with Massport,’’ the agency claimed.

Wolf released a statement denying that an ethical conflict exists over the contracts, but shied away from directly answering the commission’s assertion that he has been misleading in his public statements that the agency had not warned him of potential violations.

“I have consistently sought guidance from the Ethics Commission to ensure that I was in compliance with state laws,’’ he said. “I would not have run for state Senate initially in 2010 if I felt that Cape Air’s use of Logan Airport would in any way be inconsistent with fulfilling my public service to the people of the Cape and Islands.’’

Earlier this year, when he launched his bid for governor, Wolf returned to the Ethics Commission and this time provided copies of the contracts with MassPort for the commission’s review, the panel said.

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“In his dealings with the commission, Senator Wolf was never led to believe that no conflict existed,’’ the agency said. “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.”

The commission issued its private ruling to Wolf last Friday. Wolf, a Harwich Democrat, has defiantly vowed to remain a candidate for governor as he tries to overturn the ruling.

Wolf said Wednesday that in 2010, just after he was elected to the Senate, the Ethics Commission’s general counsel provided advice to one of his aides that “led me to believe no such conflict would exist.’’

But the commission quoted Thursday from 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. “That e-mail stated in part: ‘I also advised you to check whether Cape Air has any contracts with the state, since Mr. Wolf is not allowed to have any interests, direct or indirect, in state contracts,’ ” the commission wrote.

In his statement, Wolf said the commission’s ruling is overly strict because MassPort has no discretion in negotiating a contract over airport fees. He noted the contracts were signed in 2002 and automatically renewed from time to time since then. He said that Cape Air’s fees are set by federal regulations and apply to all airlines.

But as the airline’s chief executive officer, Wolf has in the past negotiated with MassPort when it was pushing a so-called “peak period pricing” practice in 2004 that would raise landing fees during peak hours. Wolf and other small airlines were actively lobbying for an exemption from the extra fee, saying it would cripple regional airlines. The program was never implemented.

Thomas J. Kinton, then executive director of MassPort, now sits on the board of directors of Cape Air.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.

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