By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- The state Ethics Commission approved a draft rule Monday that would allow public employees, from the governor down to a local zoning-board member, to continue doing business with the government after taking public office.
The five-member commission decided to relax particular ethics rules after state Sen. Dan Wolf, a Harwich Democrat, sought an exemption to allow him to keep holding office while Cape Air, where he is a part-owner, flies into and out of Logan International Airport, a publicly run entity.
Commission Chairman Charles Swartwood initially opposed revisiting the rules when Wolf petitioned the commission in September, but his position shifted into support for the proposed changes, which he said would have an outsize impact on local officials.
"As a former selectman, I feel that this is a good thing, and it may be of some assistance to cities and towns," Swartwood, former chief magistrate judge of the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, said before the unanimous vote. "I'm going to change my position and vote for it."
The exemption would allow people who contracted with government and later became a public employee to keep the government contract. It would also allow contract renewal, or for a subsequent similar contract, and it would permit "substantially similar" contracts as long as they are not competitively bid and have non-negotiable terms.
Public employees using the proposed Exemption E to continue prior business would be required to file an exemption, and it would not provide for public employees to enter into new business with the government.
"You're not starting something new now that you've become a public employee. You're continuing in the business you were already in," Ethics Commission Executive Director Karen Nober said in explaining the draft-rule change.
Wolf is one of the founders of Cape Air, starting as a mechanic about 25 years ago.
In October, Wolf ended his gubernatorial campaign, saying the ethics process would place his candidacy on hold for too long. Wolf had suspended the campaign over the summer while appealing to the Ethics Commission to change its advice that he drop out of the race and resign from the Senate or give up his stake in the airline that leases space at Logan.
"I'm very pleased to see where this is going," Wolf's attorney, Carl Valvo, told reporters.
The statute that undergirds the commission's rules dates more than 100 years, according to a commission official.
The commission's attorney said the draft rule attempts to maintain the aim of the conflict-of-interest law.
"We don't want people using their position to get some kind of advantageous contractual position with the government, so we don't want them talking to the agency about the contract, talking to the agency at all on behalf of somebody else, basically using their position to get some kind of superior bargaining position," Ethics Commission General Counsel Deirdre Roney told the commission.
The proposed rule applies to a broader range of governmental employees than the petition offered by Wolf, Roney said, affecting municipal and county employees as well.
"This could have a huge effect on towns," Swartwood said. "A lot of people can't run for selectman, planning board, etc., because of these contracts they've had for years."
Swartwood, whose five-year term is ending soon, could be gone before the next commission meeting. A commission spokesman advised a reporter not to interview Swartwood, as it is the commission's policy to manage all communication to the media, and later said the chairman is "pleased with the process."
Commissioners discussed potential impacts for businesspeople who handle government business, such as burial services, snowplowing, and legal advertising in a newspaper.
The draft will go to the Local Government Advisory Council for 14 days, and then a 21-day public hearing process would elapse before the regulation could be adopted, a commission official said. Right after adjourning the meeting, while all the commission members and visitors were still in their seats, commissioners discussed setting a hearing for Dec. 17 in Boston, and holding one on Cape Cod as well.