Governor Charlie Baker’s attempt to clear the way for his revenue commissioner to sit on corporate boards was quietly embedded in a House budget bill, with no notice to nearly anyone on Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s leadership team, including the chairman of the committee overseeing the state’s tax code and its enforcement.
The change in state statute, which would have allowed Commissioner Mark E. Nunnelly to sit on two major corporate boards and collect more than $300,000 a year while also carrying out his duties regulating corporate tax policies, slipped virtually unnoticed through the House in October. It was stopped in the Senate.
The move, revealed in a Globe story Monday, drew protests from ethics watchdogs, who said it would create potential conflicts of interest.
The House chairman of the Legislature’s revenue committee, which oversees tax issues and revenue department practices, said he did not know Baker’s proposal to lift the ban on outside business activities was approved in the House budget bill. He said he was never consulted on the matter.
“I didn’t know about it until I read the story,’’ said state Representative Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat. “I was surprised and happy that the Senate caught it, even though we didn’t.”
Asked Monday at a State House press availability why nearly none of his leadership team or members knew of the language, DeLeo said he approved the change because he was assured that Baker had received approval from the State Ethics Commission.
He said his Ways and Means Committee chairman, Brian Dempsey, was either “told or he checked it out, and all ethics questions had been clarified and this was approved.’’
Asked why it was never discussed, DeLeo said only that he raised it with Dempsey. House sources confirmed that the proposed change in state law was never discussed at leadership sessions. Dempsey’s office did not return a call seeking confirmation.
Baker, speaking at the same press gathering, said that the ethics panel, after a review, found Nunnelly’s engaging in private business activities was “appropriate” because he had made full public disclosure of his corporate positions and holdings.
The governor said that Nunnelly, a wealthy venture capitalist who is drawing no public salary, would also have recused himself on any matters involving companies on whose boards he sits.
“They were comfortable with the process that was put in place,’’ Baker said of the commission’s review of Nunnelly’s business activities.
Asked for documentation, Baker senior adviser Jim Conroy said Nunnelly did not have written communications from the ethics panel.
“Commissioner Nunnelly’s consultation with the Ethics Commission was in-person and centered around the full disclosure of his professional associations, nature of compensation, and contribution of that compensation to charity. The commission was satisfied with the level of transparency and the commissioner’s plans,” Conroy said.
The agency’s spokesman, David Giannotti, said that by law he cannot confirm or deny whether anyone has sought the commission’s advice.
But Baker’s defense of his plans addresses only the issue of the state’s conflict-of-interest law, not the statute that bars commissioners from conducting private business altogether. The Ethics Commission oversees only the state’s conflict-of-interest statute and would not be in a position to offer an opinion on the law governing the commissioner’s duties.
That law states that the person holding the job “shall not . . . engage in any business or profession for profit during his incumbency.”
Ethics experts, including Common Cause Massachusetts, say the law is aimed at setting a higher ethical bar for revenue commissioners than for most state officials because of the sensitivity of the department’s mission.
Pressed on whether he thought Nunnelly has been violating state law by continuing to sit on the boards for the last nine months while serving as commissioner, Baker repeated his position: “He sat on those board with Ethics Commission approval.’’
“He didn’t make any decisions during that time that involved any of those companies,’’ Baker said.
After his appointment in mid-March, Nunnelly continued to sit on the boards of Dunkin’ Brands Group and Genpact Ltd. but has been donating his salaries and stock options to charity, Baker aides have said.
Nunnelly had declined to provide the name of the charities or the dates of the donations.
Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.