An honorary degree. The prospect of a coveted teaching post after he leaves elective office.
Harvard University sure knows how to flatter a guy — especially one with the power to launch or ground the university’s 10-year, multibillion-dollar master plan for a new Allston campus as he prepares to exit after 20 years as Boston’s mayor.
Last Monday at a forum at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Mayor Thomas M. Menino disclosed that he was considering job offers from Harvard, as well as from other academic institutions.
On Tuesday, the Globe reported that two schools — the Kennedy School of Government and the School of Public Health — each offered the mayor fellowships because they wanted to tap his “considerable expertise.” That same day, the Boston Herald quoted former Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan as saying a job at Harvard raised possible conflict of interest concerns. “I think it’s a big problem whenever a public official, especially a high-ranking public official, lands at a business or institution over which they had tremendous financial decision-making regulatory power just weeks earlier,” said Sullivan, who is now research director at the Pioneer Institute.
Later that day, Menino told The Harvard Crimson that he would not be taking a job at Harvard. His spokeswoman said the mayor’s decision was “recently” reached but didn’t provide the precise timetable.
Whenever reached, it was a wise choice. Appearances matter.
Menino’s comments about a possible job at Harvard came days after the Boston Redevelopment Authority — which he controls — gave Harvard the approval it needs for a project that has been years in the works in the face of multiple challenges. The 10-year blueprint calls for 1.4 million square feet of new development and another 500,000 square feet of related renovations.
The timing of news about the job offer and the BRA approval was just a little too close for ethical comfort.
Over two decades as mayor, Menino was frequently described as thin-skinned and stubborn. But no one ever called him ethically challenged. He should avoid any hint of that label now. Unfortunately, his talk of taking a postmayoral job at Harvard put the faintest outline of a cloud over his head.
Those with long memories may recall the headlines generated when Kevin White left office after 16 years and took a job at Boston University. In 1983 — White’s last year in office — John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. donated $4.5 million to BU for construction of a new science and engineering center. Along the same timeline, the Boston Redevelopment Authority allowed Hancock to retain its old building on Clarendon Street. When White was hired to teach at BU, the US Attorney’s Office launched an investigation on the theory that White pressured Hancock into donating the money in exchange for keeping the Clarendon Street property. White’s alleged reward was the job at BU.
No charges were ever brought against White on this or other public corruption allegations. Indeed, critics like defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate, who represented one White associate who was caught up in the slew of City Hall investigations, casts this as an example of severe prosecutorial abuse. Fairly or not, however, it clouded White’s legacy.
After he was called to testify about the matter before a grand jury, the late John R. Silber, who was president of Boston University at the time, angrily rebutted the idea that the former mayor’s appointment was in any way related to the Hancock gift. Pointing out that other ex-politicians also end up in academia, Silber said, “Public officeholders usually do something after they leave office, and if the public officeholder is a mayor he has some relationship of some sort to every institution in his city.”
Those relationships are a blessing, for obvious future employment reasons, and a curse, for potential ethical ones: How do you avoid looking look like you’re cashing in or getting rewarded for favors done while in office?
Menino said he also received offers to lecture and organize conferences at BU, Northeastern University, and Suffolk University. All routinely go before the BRA.
He’s entitled to a fulfilling life after politics. But as he searches for it, he and any would-be employers should remember that integrity is his most valuable asset.Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.