Pity Robert L. Caret. The president of the University of Massachusetts might have believed he could choose which lobbying firm to hire for a $240,000-a-year contract without political interference. Instead, he got a call in February from then-Representative Edward J. Markey on behalf of one of the three finalists for the job, Stephen P. Tocco. Markey, now a senator, says he was just calling to quash a rumor that he’d had a falling-out with Tocco, a former aide. Rest assured, the congressman told Caret, he and Tocco are still pals.
Though Markey says he wasn’t asking Caret to hire Tocco, and Caret confirms that recollection, Markey showed poor judgment by getting involved at all. When a senior politician calls a public official about a job candidate, the message is loud and clear, and any university president who relies on public funding would be hard-pressed to ignore it. Even though Markey didn’t explicitly ask Caret to pick Tocco, the longtime Democratic lawmaker had to understand that speaking up for one of the candidates was a way of influencing the decision. That’s not appropriate.
Lobbyists rise and fall on the strength of their political connections, so it’s no surprise that Tocco was sensitive to rumors about a rift with Markey and eager to put them to rest. But that should have been Tocco’s problem to address. In the meantime, the post remains unfilled, and UMass should reconsider whether a public university needs a lobbyist at all. It’s the kind of low-profile but high-paying job that practically exists to be doled out to insiders, a ripe plum for the fruit flies of the political world. Massachusetts needs fewer jobs like that, not more.