Sen. Daniel Wolf remained defiant on Thursday in the face of a rare public rebuke from the state Ethics Commission days after the agency ruled that the Cape Cod Democrat was in violation of conflict of interest laws and would have to choose between a political career and the airline he founded 25 years ago.
The Ethics Commission delivered a ruling to Wolf last Friday informing the second-term senator that he would either have to resign his seat and end his campaign for governor, permanently divest himself from Cape Air or cease flying through Boston’s Logan International Airport, an option Wolf said would “destroy” the airline.
Cape Air's use of Logan caused conflict
The ruling came after Wolf contacted the Ethics Commission about any potential conflicts as he was gearing up to announce his campaign for governor in 2014. The commission found that Cape Air’s operating agreement and terminal lease with the Massachusetts Port Authority constituted a violation of state laws that prevent a state employee from having a direct or indirect financial interest in a state contract.
Wolf’s campaign on Thursday declined to say whether he planned to challenge the ruling administratively or through the courts, but showed no sign of backing down.
“I believe that the success, experience and history that I have in the private sector, brought into public service, will make me an excellent Governor. We continue to explore all our options to serve both my constituents on the Cape and Islands, and the Commonwealth,” Wolf said in a statement.
Support coming from both sides of the aisle
The back-and-forth between Wolf and the Ethics Commission came as a number of his Legislative colleagues on both sides of the aisle jumped to Wolf’s defense suggesting the commission may have overreached with its ruling as signs emerged that long-felt frustrations with the Ethics Commission by lawmakers were bubbling to the surface.
Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat and co-chair of the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, said he planned to have the committee review the ethics rules, particularly how they define a state contract.
"The commission was out to lunch on this one”, Sen. Donnelly
“I think it was a horrible decision. Just terrible. The commission was out to lunch on this one,” Donnelly told the News Service. Wolf is Donnelly’s vice-chair on the committee.
Donnelly said the intent of the law to prevent lawmakers from using their position to gain an unfair financial advantage is prudent, but questioned whether the agreement Cape Air has with Massport to fly through Logan International Airport should be construed as a traditional contract given that the fees are non-negotiable and Massport is required to accommodate Cape Air.
Massport confirmed that the rates paid by Cape Air for its operating agreement and terminal lease are set by the quasi-public agency and not negotiated with airlines. All airlines using the same Logan terminal operate under the same agreements, and the fees are adjusted annually to cover operating and airfield maintenance costs.
“We are federally obligated to accommodate all certificated air carriers that seek to operate at our airports,” Massport spokesman Matthew Brelis said in a statement.
Ethics Commission disputes Wolf
The Ethics Commission, which typically shies away from commenting publicly on specific cases, disputed on Thursday Wolf’s assertion that he had been advised informally before first being elected to the Senate in 2010 that his ownership stake in Cape Air created no conflict.
In a statement released by the commission, the agency claimed that Wolf did not seek advice until after he was elected in November 2010, at which point the commission’s general counsel provided oral advice on how the conflict of interest law applied to Wolf.
The general counsel followed up that conversation with an email to an unnamed Wolf aide on Nov. 23, 2012 summarizing the verbal advice. “I also advised you to check whether Cape Air has any contracts with the state, since Mr. Wolf is not allowed to have any interests, direct or indirect, in state contracts,” the counsel wrote in the email. Wolf did not follow up or inform the commission of Cape Air’s contracts with Massport, according to the statement.
2013 meeting between Wolf and commission attorneys
The statement went on to describe an April 5, 2013 meeting between Wolf and commission attorneys when he was advised that if Cape Air had contracts with Massport he would have prohibited financial interests in state contracts. Wolf agreed to provide the Ethics Commission with copies of Cape Air’s agreements with Massport, but announced his campaign for governor before receiving formal advice.
“In his dealings with the Commission, Senator Wolf was never led to believe that no conflict existed; in fact, he was advised that he likely had a substantial problem under the conflict law, and that he would be given specific advice after he provided the Massport contracts,” the Ethics Commission statement said.
Wolf said his position on his dealings with the Ethics Commission have not changed.
"Commission spews lies about specific opinion" - Brian Dunn
“I have always believed that my relationship to Cape Air, and Cape Air’s use of Logan Airport dating back 25 years to the day I founded the company as a young mechanic and pilot, has never constituted a violation of the public trust, or the state ethics laws. I have consistently sought guidance from the ethics commission to ensure that I was in compliance with state laws. I would not have run for State Senate initially in 2010 if I felt that Cape Air's use of Logan Airport would in any way be inconsistent with fulfilling my public service to the people of the Cape and Islands,” Wolf said.
Brian Dunn, deputy field director for Wolf’s gubernatorial campaign, vented on Twitter: “Yesterday State Ethics Commission said they couldn't comment on opinions issued. Today they spew lies about specific opinion.”
Romney placed all of his investments into a blind trust
Rep. Daniel Winslow, a former judge and chief legal counsel to Gov. Mitt Romney, said Romney placed all of his investments into a blind trust while serving as governor to remove the appearance of conflict, and suggested similar things could be done to resolve Wolf’s conflict short of the options presented by the Ethics Commission.
“We need the best and brightest of both parties in this building and if the doors are closed to anyone that hurts everyone,” Winslow said, adding, “We need Sen. Wolf and more Sen. Wolfs. I just wish they were Republican.”
Winslow said state ethics laws already allows exemptions for lawyers voting on judicial issues and for lawmakers accepting gifts from individuals in cases when their friendship pre-dates one serving in elected office. “There is precedent for friendships, why not businesses? If I were his lawyer, I would argue that,” Winslow said.
Ruling against Wolf “seems like a harsh result" - Murray”
Senate President Therese Murray said the Ethics Commission ruling against Wolf “seems like a harsh result.”
“I support Dan Wolf in his efforts to rescind this decision. Dan is a good man, a hard worker and a dedicated public servant and he continues to be a strong voice for the people of the Cape and Islands District. We want to encourage more people like Dan to serve in public office,” she said in a statement.
Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, commented on the ethics dispute through Twitter, and then spoke to the News Service about the precedent he feared the Ethics Commission was setting with its ruling on Wolf: “Does this mean a state worker can’t eat in restaurant I co-own?,” Hedlund wrote on Twitter.
Hedlund later called the process “patently unfair” for anyone in business who wants to enter public service.
GOP Sen. Hedlund called the process “patently unfair”
“I think it’s a little unfair. If you’re going to interpret things so broadly, I would think that you could up with an interpretation that would disqualify almost any business that’s out there,” Hedlund said. “In the Senate he can recuse himself and if he were the CEO of the Commonwealth, he should be bound by ethical common sense in making decisions and not engage in decisions that will benefit his business and I think he can do that.”
Hedlund said the recent update in 2010 to the state’s ethics laws left a lot of interpretation to the Ethics Commission. “I think this is a good example of how we missed the mark, but at some point common sense has to come into play,” he said.
The Boston Herald reports that Karen L. Nober, the commission’s executive director, said that its lawyers have issued roughly 50 opinions on similar matters, and that Wolf’s circumstances — including his 23 percent share of the airlines — do not fall into the “particularly narrow” set of exemptions under the state ethics law.
“The Commission most recently opined on this issue in 2011, advising a newly elected state legislator that his family business could no longer contract with the state, even though his family had contracted with the state agency for 30 years,” Nober said. “While we understand that this situation creates difficult choices for Senator Wolf, there is no basis for the Commission to give him special or different treatment.”
How should the state ethics commission's ruling affect Dan Wolf's candidacy for governor?: