The State Ethics Commission apparently did a terrible thing.
No, it didn’t stretch the law or bend it. Instead, it applied it evenly to the facts surrounding state Senator Dan Wolf’s ownership interest in a regional airline. The conclusion: Wolf can’t run for governor and should resign from the Senate if he does not divest his 23 percent interest in Cape Air.
The ruling stirred up surprising sympathy from the press — for Wolf, not for the Ethics Commission. Apparently, it’s outrageous in Massachusetts to point out an ethical violation, as defined by state law — even if the law is pretty clear.
Under Section 7 of Chapter 268A, state employees are prohibited from having financial interests in state contracts, unless an exemption applies.
As the commission’s ruling points out, “Cape Air has contracts with Massport under which it must pay rent and various charges and fees to Massport. Cape Air has a financial interest in those contracts. Therefore, the legislator, as owner of at least 23 percent of Cape Air, has an indirect financial interest in those contracts.”
According to the ruling, no exemptions apply to Wolf as a lawmaker or governor. The ruling also mentioned previous decisions to demonstrate that the law has been equally applied under similar circumstances.
The conflict of interest law was first enacted in 1962, so perhaps it’s due for tweaking. But launching a gubernatorial run on a platform calling for weaker ethics standards versus stronger would be a curious campaign strategy. And calling upon state lawmakers to change the law so one of their own could run for office is also a headache. What is Beacon Hill going to do? Institute a “Dan Wolf exemption?”
Wolf told Commonwealth Magazine that if the ethics ruling stands, he would likely step down from the Legislature, and might abandon his run for governor. However, on Wednesday, he announced a “Take Off with Dan Wolf Grassroots Tour.” In an interview, he told me he is talking to the Ethics Commission to see if he can work out some kind of resolution that would allow him to divest over time.
Whether Wolf runs for governor is one question. But how did he ever run for state Senate, given the law?
File the answer under don’t ask, don’t tell. He said he talked to the Ethics Commission prior to his run but never specifically asked if Cape Air ownership presented a conflict of interest. “I’ve never been to law school, I didn’t look at precedent, and I didn’t look at prior rulings,” he said.
Wolf, who founded Cape Air in 1989, said he didn’t think he had a problem because all airlines are charged the same rate and the airport is required by federal law to allow federally certified airlines to fly there — so with no need for negotiation, there’s no opportunity for influence, he contends. He also said that if he knew back then that Cape Air was an issue, he wouldn’t have run for office.
Wolf also said that as a senator, he has never voted on any appropriations that affected Massport and if any had come up he would have recused himself.
Last March, he asked the Ethics Commission to rule “out of an abundance of caution.” Now he’s unhappy with the answer.
With so much focus on Whitey Bulger, less attention has been paid to Beacon Hill maneuverings. But Democratic candidates who would be governor are already jockeying for position and support. Wolf, in or out of the race, changes the landscape.
Given the pushback, will commission members stick with their principles? Or will they retreat? It’s a test for them, as much as it is a test for Wolf.
If the Ethics Commission believes in the legal soundness of its ruling, it shouldn’t back down. The law should apply to everyone in equal measure. Public service has its price and those who really want to serve are willing to pay it. When it comes to serving the public interest, that’s not so terrible.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.