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Steve Bailey | Downtown

Self-inflicted wounds

Biotech council president Bob Coughlin might not win in the court of public opinion. Biotech council president Bob Coughlin might not win in the court of public opinion.

If Bob Coughlin thought he was at the Four Seasons' Bristol Lounge for a "networking session" - his lawyer's words - with Mark Leuchtenberger, the guy running the search for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council's new president, the others who took their turn to lunch with Leuchtenberger saw it very differently: They were there auditioning for the job of a lifetime.

Coughlin started his new job last week, and should be celebrating and out glad-handing after landing one of the juiciest plums in the local lobbying business - a position that paid the last guy, former House Speaker Tom Finneran, a reported $500,000 a year. Instead, Coughlin is now, by necessity, deep in the bunker at the biotech council's offices in Cambridge as the state Ethics Commission investigates how the Patrick administration's point man to the biotech industry came to be its top lobbyist.

Coughlin's lawyer, the very able Tom Kiley, blames this mess on Globe State House bureau chief Frank Phillips, who has aggressively reported out this story, including an embarrassing paper trail of e-mails that show Coughlin was working with the industry on tax credits, among other issues, at the same time he was being courted to run the industry's trade group. Coughlin, however, has no one to blame but himself. A good rule to live by: Too much disclosure is always better than not enough. (Disclosure: I'm paid to be on Finneran's radio show every morning.)

As Phillips has reported, Coughlin waited six weeks after his June 11 meeting with Leuchtenberger, the chairman of the search committee, to disclose his interest in the job to the administration while continuing to work as undersecretary of economic affairs on matters of concern to the biotech world.

Kiley says Coughlin was "networking" - a practice allowed by the ethics statute - with Leuchtenberger that warm and cloudy June day and wasn't looking for a new job. But others who broke bread with Leuchtenberger at a table overlooking Boston's fabulous Public Garden say it was clear to them that this was the key meeting to break out of the pack and make it to the final four.

"This was your one chance to interview with the chairman of the search committee, period," said one hopeful who spent more than two hours at the Bristol Lounge making a detailed pitch. "It was made very clear: You were going to make the cut or not." Says another top candidate: "The biotech council was sizing us up. They wanted to get a close look at the candidates that were interested in this." Added a third: "You had to get through that meeting to get to the next one."

None of the ex-candidates would talk on the record. After all, they had some interest in the job and didn't get it. But they offer an insight into the process that ended with Coughlin's selection. All said they were contacted by Becky Levin, the council's headhunter, booked by her for their meeting with Leuchtenberger, and provided the same thick background packet on the industry and the job. An e-mail from the search firm to Coughlin says he got the same package a few days before his meeting.

Bob Coughlin is well regarded and will probably do a fine job heading the biotech council. But he hasn't done the biotech council - now on its third president in three years - or himself any favors in how he got there.

He has lived in the fishbowl that is public life long enough to know better.

With the help of a very good lawyer, Coughlin may be able to argue that he complied with the letter of the law. But in the court of public opinion, a world he has been hired to shape, it looks bad. And the shame is that it was all completely avoidable.

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

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