Facing an uproar that is shaking even his own supporters, Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday that he made a mistake when he called a top executive at Citigroup, which has operations that are regulated by the state, to vouch for a controversial lending firm.
"I regret the mistake," Patrick said in a statement issued late yesterday, his second public mea culpa in two weeks over politically sensitive errors in judgment.
Two weeks ago, Patrick placed a call to former US Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, now a top executive at Citigroup, interceding on behalf of owners of Ameriquest Mortgage, which was seeking urgent financial assistance from the giant firm. When questioned by the Globe late Friday, Patrick defended the call, saying that he was not acting in his role as governor and that he simply offered a reference at the request of a top official at ACC Capital Holdings, which owns Ameriquest and other financial firms.
In yesterday's statement, Patrick backed down from his adamant stance that the call was appropriate, but reiterated that he was not compensated by the owners of Ameriquest Mortgage and does not have a financial interest in the company.
The deal between Citigroup and ACC Capital was completed last week. Ameriquest, which provides high-interest mortgages to high-risk lenders, has been repeatedly accused of predatory lending practices. Patrick served on the ACC board for two years, earning a salary of $360,000, until he resigned in July.
"Even though I made this call solely as a former board member, and I believe that was clear to Mr. Rubin, I appreciate that I should not have made the call," said Patrick, who spent most of the day in his office, avoiding reporters who waited outside.
Patrick did not elaborate on what his mistake was or why he feels that he should not have made the call to Rubin. "We will just stand by our statement," said his press secretary, Kyle Sullivan.
But in a telephone interview yesterday with Globe columnist Eileen McNamara, Patrick said: "I get it. I really do."
The call was "a stupid mistake," he said. "I have no stake in this game. The state has no stake in this game. But I don't get to draw a line between my private self and my public self. Maybe I'm resisting that a little bit, and that's why I keep making these stupid mistakes." The column is on Page B1.
Common Cause of Massachusetts, a nonprofit government watchdog group, had questioned Patrick's decision to make such a call to a company that has extensive business before the state. Pamela Wilmot, its executive director, told the Globe such a call would put the firm in an "uncomfortable and untenable" position and creates an appearance of conflict of interest for the governor.
Several divisions of Citigroup, the world's largest financial company, have business in Massachusetts that is regulated by agencies controlled by the Patrick administration. Citigroup's public financing division also contracts for lucrative bond work with quasi-public agencies and authorities that Patrick controls or will control during his tenure as governor. Ameriquest is licensed by the state Division of Banks.
"I have no financial interest in ACC Capital Holdings or its subsidiary, Ameriquest Financial," Patrick said in his statement. "I neither knew nor had any interest in the details of the transaction that ACC Capital and Citigroup were considering. As a former board member, I was asked by an officer of ACC Capital to serve as a reference for the company and agreed to do so."
Patrick, a former assistant attorney general, pointed out that he had worked with Rubin in the Clinton administration and that the conversation with Citigroup's executive lasted "at most a couple of minutes."
Patrick's latest political misstep reverberated yesterday on radio talk shows and Internet blogs. It also generated concern among his supporters, weeks after reports that he leased a Cadillac as his official state car and redecorated his office with $27,000 worth of drapes, desks, couches, and lamps.
As criticism mounted, Patrick agreed two weeks ago to help cover the monthly payments on the car and to reimburse the state for the furniture.
Warren Tolman, the former state senator from Watertown who describes himself as a strong Patrick supporter, said the governor broke no laws in making the call to Rubin. But reports that he reached out to Citigroup on behalf of the controversial mortgage company is a "public relations disaster," Tolman said.
"I think his supporters are still very much believers and want him to do well," Tolman said. "But they are scratching their heads. This latest report is another blow to the governor's image."
Jeffrey M. Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University, said Patrick's actions stand in stark contrast to his demeanor during his campaign for governor. He now seems to be moving in a bubble, Berry said, and is showing no sensitivity to the political arena in which he works.
"Governor Patrick showed very poor judgment in making the call," Berry said. Then citing Patrick's campaign theme, Berry said: "During the campaign: together we can. Today: I can do what I want. There is a tone-deafness that is striking."
While Patrick refused to meet with the press yesterday, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray came to his defense. Several hours before the governor issued his statement saying he was wrong, Murray told reporters outside the governor's office that Patrick acted appropriately in calling Citgroup.