Senator Wolf may keep seat during review of ethics rules

Sen. Dan Wolf — File photo by Steve Myrick

With his political career hanging in the balance, Sen. Daniel Wolf’s hope of remaining in office and possibly mounting a campaign for governor in 2014 were kept alive on Thursday, September 19, when the Ethics Commission voted to begin a process that could end with an exemption for the Cape Air owner from a conflict of interest law.

Senator Wolf represents the district that includes Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. Wolf and his attorneys made their case before the five-member Ethics Commission on Thursday for a new regulation that would exempt him, and business owners like him, from conflict of interest laws that prevent anyone with a significant financial interest in a state contract from serving in public office.

The commission voted 4-1, after two hours of arguments and deliberation, to direct its staff to begin the rule making process to craft an exemption that would presumably be tailored to specific types of contracts like those between Cape Air and Massport. Commissioners said any new rule would have to guarantee that an officeholder cannot gain any advantage over other applicants by limiting its scope to contracts that are non-negotiable and available to anyone who qualifies.

“I’m pleased that the commission is going to look at the possibility of crafting an exemption that would allow me to stay in the state Senate and allow me to continue a gubernatorial run, so I’m hopeful and positive about it, but still there is a lot we don’t know we still have to find out,” Senator Wolf said.

Campaign question

Senator Wolf said he would not make a decision about restarting his suspended campaign for governor until he can speak with commission staff and get a better sense of what they are considering, how long the drafting and public comment period will last, and whether it will address his ability to run for governor, or just serve in the Senate.

“It’s possible that what they’re contemplating would allow him to stay in the Senate and leave open the question of what happens as governor. That is obviously not a happy result for us, but it’s one of the possibilities,” said Mr. Wolf’s attorney Carl Valvo.

The commission issued an opinion in August that found the senator in violation of conflict laws because of the lease and operation agreements Cape Air holds with Massport. The commission gave Mr. Wolf the option of resigning and ending his fledgling gubernatorial run, divesting from Cape Air, or ceasing Cape Air operations through Logan Airport.

Senator Wolf and a host of petitioners, including former attorneys general, judges, and Ethics Commission commissioners, filed a petition requesting a regulatory change that would draw a distinction between the type of non-negotiable contracts between Cape Air and Massport and those where lawmakers might be able to exert influence over the awarding and value of state contracts for themselves.

Mixed ruling

The petition did not challenge the Ethics Commission’s interpretation of the existing law.

The commission voted to reject the regulation as proposed by Mr. Wolf and the petitioners, but instructed staff to begin drafting their own rule that would address the concerns raised during the meeting. The commission also gave the senator an extension that will allow the Cape Cod Democrat to remain in the Senate “indefinitely” while the process plays out, according to the Wolf campaign. Without the extension, he would have had to resign Thursday to comply with the advisory opinion.

“Fundamentally, the contract that we have here seems different than many other contracts that have been subject to Section 7 proceedings before,” commissioner Martin Murphy said, suggesting Cape Air’s contracts with Massport are more like a license to operate rather than the state using taxpayer money to pay for a public service.

Mr. Murphy said any new regulation should include a requirement that exempted contracts be available to all qualified applicants, such as Cape Air’s right to operate at Logan Airport, because it is a qualified airline under the terms of a non-negotiable contract extended to all similarly qualified airlines.

Contract issue

Commissioner William Trach said that because the current regulations speak to competitively bid contracts, which Cape Air’s are not, he feels comfortable that the state legislature had never contemplated a situation like Mr. Wolf’s, making it appropriate for the commission to consider.

While commissioner Regina Quinlan said she preferred the legislature to address the issue and felt “discomfort” with the idea of creating an exemption for one person, the issues raised by Mr. Wolf’s attorney sufficiently painted a broader picture of problems with the law, and she wants to hear from both proponents and opponents.

Commission chairman Charles Swartwood, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he would have voted to deny Mr. Wolf’s petition outright and voted against proceeding with the regulatory process because he thought the law and legislative intent was already clear.

Lawyer Valvo argued that the state’s constitution envisioned a democracy where everyone has a right to go before the voters and seek their support to serve and that the “overbreadth” of the state’s conflict of interest law was not serving that goal.

“What I’m here to ask and to say is that there are good reasons, there are legitimate public interests to be served, and there is a negligible conflict of interest to be tolerated if you do a regulation of the type we are proposed,” Mr. Valvo said.

Broad support

Pam Wilmot, the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts and a signatory to the petition, argued that the Ethics Commission, and not the legislature, was the appropriate body to consider the regulatory change in keeping with a 2004 law that gave the commission the authority to enact these types of rules.

“We believe the ethics laws are actually a danger when they are interpreted to be overly broad and unfair,” Mr. Wilmot said.

Speaking on his own behalf, Senator Wolf said he worried other current public officials or those who might be considering public life could find themselves caught up in a similar situation.

“I do have a concern about who unwillingly, unwittingly will step into a situation like this who for the very reason I got into public service gets into public service to do good, to spend the last third of their life giving back having been blessed with the success that I have, and really unwittingly falls into an unnecessary web we have to catch people who would abuse their position,” Mr. Wolf said.

Though Mr. Wolf has previously acknowledged seeking an informal opinion from commission staff about his potential for a conflict when running for the Senate in 2010, he told the commission, “It never occurred to me three years ago when I ran for office that because these agreements are fixed, non-negotiable beyond the ability to influence in any way that my behavior as a public official, could ever be called into question.”