Who’s chilling whom?
There’s a lot of hand-wringing over the chilling effect of a state Ethics Commission ruling on the political ambitions of state Senator Dan Wolf. What about the chilling effect of all that hand-wringing on the state Ethics Commission?
Last month, the commission informed Wolf that he can’t simultaneously hold public office and his 23 percent interest in Cape Air. His financial interest plus the airline’s contracts with Massport add up to a conflict of interest under state law, the five commissioners decided.
But Wolf, a Democrat who represents the Cape and the Islands, wants to keep his stake in Cape Air, retain the Senate seat he won in 2010, and run for governor. And, in an unusual development, some powerful progressive voices are speaking up for him and against the Ethics Commission.
Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray, as well as other Beacon Hill Democrats, bemoaned the commission’s opinion, while worrying that decisions like that keep entrepreneurs like Wolf from running for office.
The head of Common Cause of Massachusetts — supposedly the state’s ethics watchdog — called upon the commission to find a way to let Wolf off the hook.
Wolf’s constituents also threatened to march to the Ethics Commission door. Wolf’s supporters called off their rally plans after the Ethics Commission extended the deadline for Wolf to either resign his seat or divest his interest in his company.
In the meantime, Wolf is asking the Ethics Commission to consider a petition to adopt an exemption that applies to him — in other words, to change the rules. Karen L. Nober, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said that the commission’s willingness to take up Wolf’s petition “does not indicate we agree with it. Nor does it indicate we don’t agree with it. It just means we’re willing to consider it.”
In reaching its earlier opinion on Wolf, the Ethics Commission analyzed Section 7 of Chapter 268A, which prohibits state employees from having financial interests in state contracts, unless an exemption applies.
Cape Air has contracts under which it pays rent and other fees to Massport, a quasi-public agency whose board is controlled by the governor. Therefore, Wolf, as owner of 23 percent of Cape Air, has a direct financial interest in those contracts. That’s the conflict.
In a press release explaining its decision that Wolf must divest or give up his elective office, the Ethics Commission wrote, “While we understand it creates difficult choices for Senator Wolf, there is no basis for the commission to give him special or different treatment.”
Wolf’s supporters argue that because the airport is required by federal law to allow federally certified airlines to fly there, and all airlines are charged the same rate, he has no power to negotiate and therefore no undue influence. Yet if everyone pays the same landing fees, it’s partly because Wolf was part of a group that lobbied back in 2004 against a Massport plan to raise landing fees for small aircraft. The goal was to reduce Logan’s small aircraft traffic, recalled Fred Salvucci, a former state transportation secretary and Massport board member.
“Cape Air was a major factor in lobbying against Massport’s effort to change the landing fee,” said Salvucci.
Cape Air remains in the middle of major public policy issues, from airport expansion to airline safety. Maybe full disclosure of Wolf’s interest is enough. If it’s enough for Wolf, maybe it’s also enough for others who are otherwise in conflict under current law.
It’s hard to imagine the state’s leading liberals, with help from political soul mates like Common Cause, going to bat for a Republican facing a similar scenario. But let’s give the state’s liberal establishment the benefit of the doubt. If Democrats believe the law, as written, is too onerous and keeps too many good people from public office, they should change it. And they can, since they control the Legislature and the governor’s office.
But they should do it through the legislative process. Then, there would be public hearings and a vote taken by 200 lawmakers who collectively represent Bay State citizens. That is preferable to five commissioners making a change that could look like a bow to public pressure. If that happens on an ethical question — now that’s a really chilling thought.
CLARIFICATION: The “Candidates of Color Mayoral Forum” that I wrote about on Aug. 29 is being organized by Maggie Brown and Jocelyn Choate of “For the Community by the Community” and promoted by activist Jamarhl Crawford. Freedom House is providing space for the Sept. 10 event. It is not a host or sponsor.Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.