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Brotherly trouble

Life is, indeed, full of ironies.

It was just last summer that Bill Bulger resigned as president of the University of Massachusetts, finally unable to keep separate his carefully crafted life of accomplishment and power from that of his wanted-for-murder gangster brother, Whitey. When any public official has to invoke his constitutional protections against self-incrimination as Bulger did before a congressional committee it is time to go.

Now with the UMass board expected to pick a new president as early as today, one of the two finalists to succeed Bulger is in danger of being undone, in part, by his brothers. Ironic it is; right it is not.

Unless things change quickly, interim president Jack Wilson, who has spent most of his career in academia and was brought to UMass by Bulger, is expected to be named to head the five-campus, 60,000-student university system, beating out a nontraditional candidate, Alan Solomont, a wealthy businessman who is maybe the state's most prodigious fund-raiser for US Senator John Kerry and other Massachusetts Democrats. But if Wilson wins and Solomont loses, it should be for the right reasons which man can best lead an institution that is critical to the state's future and not for the wrong reasons.

The wrong reason: penalizing Solomont for the problems of his brothers.

According to those close to the selection process, Solomont wowed the search committee with his passion and vision for the job during a drop-dead interview in mid-January. But in subsequent meetings with leaders of the committee, Solomont, 55, informed them of problems his brothers are facing. One brother, Jay Solomont, 49, has been in an Israeli prison for about a year, charged with misappropriation of funds. Another brother, David Solomont, 52, is embroiled in a lawsuit in Massachusetts that accuses him of diverting more than $1 million from a company he cofounded; he also was ordered to repay Citizens Bank after defaulting on a $500,000 note in 2003.

"I am saddened that anyone in my family has caused problems for themselves or their family," says Alan Solomont, who made his fortune in nursing homes and helped consolidate the UMass system in the early '90s. "That is painful for me. But I have chosen to be completely transparent and candid about it, not to withhold it, to actively reassure the board that this is: one, how I deal with it and, two, I want the board to be completely comfortable with my character."

The disclosures mattered to the UMass board. Foley Hoag attorney Michael B. Keating, who advised the board on the Bulger controversy, was asked to investigate Solomont and his brothers as well as other finalists for the job.

The UMass board has an obligation to do its due diligence on all the candidates, but it should not confuse Billy Bulger with Alan Solomont. Bulger was damaged not by his brother's behavior but his own. When he told a grand jury that he felt no obligation to get his gangster brother off the street and then bobbed and weaved with a congressional committee, he forfeited his right to lead. Solomont, on the other hand, brought his family's dirty laundry to the board.

Attorney General Tom Reilly, the first major Democrat to call for Bulger's departure, says concern about Solomont's family is a red herring. "It should be a nonissue," he says. "I do not know Mr. Wilson, so I can't speak to his abilities. But I do know Solomont. . . . He has tremendous skills and believes in the mission of the university."

With tuitions out of sight at private colleges, public institutions such as UMass are more important than ever to middle-class kids. UMass needs the very best leader it can recruit, and it needs to make its choice on the merits, and nothing more.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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