The announcement by Cape and Islands state Sen. Dan Wolf this week that he is ending his bid for governor in 2014 came as little surprise. But his strange imbroglio with the Massachusetts Ethics Commission over the last few months has left more questions than answers, particularly about his future as a legislator representing the Island.
At the heart of the issue is whether Mr. Wolf, who owns a twenty three per cent interest in Cape Air, can continue to serve in the state senate while the airline has a contract with the Massachusetts Port Authority which operates Logan Airport in Boston. The Massachusetts Ethics Commission, in a statement made public in August, said the state conflict of interest law prohibits state employees, including legislators, from having a financial interest in state contracts.
Oddly, although Mr. Wolf has served as state senator since 2010, the issue didn’t surface publicly until he announced his gubernatorial run this year, when it became entangled in the larger question of whether he legally could serve as governor for the same reasons.
After getting an answer he evidently didn’t like from the ethics commission, Mr. Wolf issued a statement on his website acknowledging but openly disagreeing with it, noting that Cape Air’s contract with the port authority renews automatically. The commission then put out its own statement, disputing Mr. Wolf’s version of events. The commission stood strongly behind its opinion that Mr. Wolf was in conflict and must either divest his business interests or resign elected office.
With Mr. Wolf’s status as a candidate for governor and as a sitting state senator in limbo, the commission held a public hearing in September. Bolstered by an impressive array of supporters, he persuaded the commission to consider changes that would exempt certain nonnegotiable contracts from the conflict law. This week he withdrew from the governor’s race, saying it wasn’t feasible to wait for the commission to act.
There is a good discussion to be had about whether application of the conflict of interest law discourages businesspeople who have much to offer from entering into public service, but unfortunately that debate has been all but lost in a testy and muddled dispute between Mr. Wolf and the ethics commission, a body that works behind closed doors and decides independently when to make its decisions public.
It is unclear at this juncture whether the rule change will go forward and how long it might take. It is equally unclear on what basis Mr. Wolf is being permitted to stay in the state senate.
We know Mr. Wolf to be a person of integrity who commands respect for his business acumen and as the founder of a world-class small airline. But he hasn’t been completely open and transparent with his constituents through this process, among other things declining more than one interview request from this newspaper seeking clarity.
For its part, the ethics commission — whose members are appointed by three different top state officials — has also failed to provide a clear and consistent message.
Is the commission giving Mr. Wolf a bye to finish out his term? Will he be allowed to run again? Does he plan to run again? What does he hope to accomplish between now and 2014?
Voters on the Vineyard and in the rest of the district deserve straightforward answers to these questions.