THE STATE’S top economic development official pitched the benefits of resort casinos to Massachusetts lawmakers at the same time he owned stock in two Las Vegas gambling companies that want to build casinos in Massachusetts. If that doesn’t look like a conflict of interest, what does? But Gregory Bialecki, the secretary of housing and economic development, decided on his own that it did not. He sold the stock only after the Globe raised questions about it.
Bialecki is untroubled by the matter — and so, apparently, is Governor Deval Patrick. The governor’s spokeswoman told the Globe that Bialecki was acting with “an abundance of caution’’ by selling the stock well before the administration would have to implement a gambling law.
Patrick should expect more from his cabinet secretaries. The sequence of events surrounding this stock purchase raises troubling questions about Bialecki’s judgment. It also reinforces the importance of holding officials to the highest ethical standards, which is especially vital given the backroom dealing that already defines Massachusetts’ effort to legalize casinos.
Bialecki held a total of more than $17,000 worth of stock in Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd., both of which hope to build casinos in Massachusetts. Bialecki said a financial advisor bought the shares on his behalf, without his knowledge. According to Bialecki, he only learned of the purchases when he filed his annual financial disclosure form on May 1. At that time, Bialecki said, he decided the stock did not create “an appearance of conflict.’’ Making that judgment on his own, he now acknowledges, was “dumb.’’
It was more than dumb. It ignored state ethics law, which prohibits public employees from acting in a matter that would cause a reasonable person to conclude they were unduly influenced by outside ties. The test is not whether the public employee is actually influenced by such ties, but whether the public can have faith in that employee’s decision-making, given his holdings. If there is room for reasonable doubt, the employee is supposed to seek an opinion from his or her “appointing authority’’ — in this case, the governor. Bialecki never sought that opinion.
Meanwhile, on May 4, three days after filing his financial disclosure form, he testified before a legislative panel about the economic virtues of casinos. As he made the administration’s case, Bialecki was acting as the state’s chief economic official, offering his expert opinion. Yet the policy he was endorsing could have enhanced his private portfolio. If anyone listening to his testimony knew he already owned stock in two of the major casino players in Massachusetts, they would have taken it with the proverbial grain of salt.
Now, in seeking to minimize his role in the gambling bill, Bialecki claimed in an interview that he was never Patrick’s “lead person’’ on casinos and instead describes himself as “the spokesperson for the administration’s position.’’ On the day that he testified, he said, he was handed “a three-page document’’ that was “prepared by others, without my input.’’
He paints a damning picture, both of his own lack of sensitivity to appearances, and of an administration that appears to be so committed to its gambling deal with legislative leaders that it would put words in the mouth of its own secretary of housing and economic development.
If Bialecki doesn’t know what’s going on with his personal finances or what’s going into the public policy he promotes, maybe he isn’t the best person for the job of secretary of housing and economic development. But as long as he has the job, the state ethics commission, as well as the governor’s legal counsel, should review this matter. Maybe that will help Bialecki focus on the bright line that state ethics law is supposed to draw between public policy and private gain.