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Patrick makes the wrong call

Once again, Governor Patrick has made a rookie mistake that could easily have been avoided. He should have known better than to call Robert Rubin, the former US treasury secretary, last month and offer himself as a character witness for the owners of Ameriquest Mortgage.

All Patrick had to do was call the State Ethics Commission, which answers some 4000 inquiries a year, frequently giving advice over the phone. If the commission had so advised, Patrick could have disclosed the call before making it, taking away some of the appearance of impropriety.

Instead, the governor called Rubin, a colleague from the Clinton administration who is now a director and chairman of the executive committee of Citigroup, on behalf of ACC Capital Holdings, the firm that owns Ameriquest. ACC was seeking financial support from Citigroup, and got it Feb. 28.

Patrick acknowledged late yesterday that the call was a mistake and said he regretted it. The speed and directness of the statement are welcome. Still, his failure to see the error before he made it is worrisome.

Patrick was on the board of ACC for nearly two years until he resigned during the campaign amid controversy over the $360,000 annual fee for board members and the low-end lending practices of Ameriquest. Had Rubin called Patrick, the exchange would not have been quite so questionable. But by initiating the call, Patrick allowed the impression to be created that he was advocating for ACC, even though he said in a statement he was not promoting the deal in question.

Impressions are important, however, both politically and legally. Section 23(b)(3) -- the "appearances" section -- is the best-known part of the state conflict of interest law. It forbids actions that a reasonable person might conclude would subject an official to undue influence from others. Since Citigroup and Ameriquest are both active in Massachusetts, and subject to state regulation, Patrick should have stopped himself.

A broader problem is Patrick's assertion, repeated yesterday, that he "made this call solely as a former board member" and not "in his capacity as governor." Yet it is simply impossible to take off the governor's hat at will.

In this and other recent missteps, it appears that Patrick's brilliant campaign instincts have not matured into solid governing judgments. They raise a suspicion that he is not getting very solid advice, or is not trusting the people who do give it.

Patrick asked Massachusetts to take a leap of faith in November, trusting a first-time office seeker to bind the state in common purpose, and begin to move it forward. Voters delivered that trust, in considerable numbers. Now it is Patrick's job to deliver his part of the bargain, to keep his governor's hat on and work single-mindedly for the state's betterment 24 hours a day, every day.

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