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Joan Vennochi

Troubling beginnings for biotech council chief

FOR THE MASSACHUSETTS Biotechnology Council, the desire for political access is also a prescription for political controversy.

The council's new president, Robert K. Coughlin, is already defending himself against charges that he violated the state conflict-of-interest law. Coughlin just replaced former speaker of the House Thomas M. Finneran, who was forced to quit as president after pleading guilty to a felony obstruction-of-justice charge.

Whoosh! Talk about a revolving door. In about six months, Coughlin went from a job as one of the governor's top liaisons to the biotech industry to talking about a job as that industry's top advocate. Then, it took Coughlin six weeks to disclose those discussions to the state. At the same time, he was working on major state biotech initiatives.

A former state legislator, Coughlin is well connected. He is related to Jack Connors Jr., chairman of Partners Healthcare, the powerful umbrella organization for Harvard teaching hospitals. Connors served as an employment reference for Coughlin, who is his second cousin; so did Joe O'Donnell, a prominent Boston businessman who runs The Joey Fund, a charity named after his son, who died of cystic fibrosis. Coughlin, who also raises money for the charity, has a 5-year-old son who has the disease. That could make him a compelling advocate for the industry.

But whether he followed the law still matters.

Coughlin first met with members of the biotech council's search committee on June 11. He had a second meeting on June 13. But not until July 19 did he inform his immediate boss, Secretary of Housing and Economic Affairs Daniel O'Connell, of his discussions. On July 20, he notified Governor Deval Patrick, according to Cyndi Roy, a spokeswoman for the governor. On July 24, he filed a formal disclosure with the state ethics commission. He was hired Aug. 13.

The state's conflict-of-interest law requires disclosure when a state employee participates in a matter "in which he . . . or any organization with whom he is negotiating . . . concerning prospective employment has a financial interest."

Coughlin's lawyer, Thomas R. Kiley, told the Globe's Frank Phillips that the June 11 meeting wasn't an interview or negotiation; it was a "meet and greet." Kiley told me that once Coughlin became a job candidate, no matter was discussed "in which the Massachusetts biotech council has any financial interests." Asked about Coughlin's financial interest in landing a job that could pay up to $500,000, Kiley said, "That's not what the statute is about." He then declared himself too busy for further conversation and ended the telephone call.

From the start, the biotech council wanted a schmoozer, especially with a Democrat in the governor's office.

In January, Patrick told biotech council members that he supports prescription drug importation from Canada, a practice that drugmakers and his Republican predecessor opposed. Patrick also called upon industry leaders to work with him to make drug treatments more affordable. At the time, a spokesman for Biogen Idec Inc. -- a biotech giant and council member -- described the Patrick administration as "a change and a challenge."

Patrick has not mentioned price controls since. In May, he announced a $1 billion biotechnology investment plan that would finance cutting-edge research, create the nation's largest stem-cell bank, and provide expanded tax credits to life science companies. Coughlin was a point person for the package, which the governor detailed publicly on July 19 -- the same day Coughlin told his boss he was talking to the biotech council about the president's job.

Asked if Patrick had any previous, less formal notice of Coughlin's interest in the job, Roy said, "The governor was not made aware of this prior to his (Coughlin's) disclosure."

The state Republican Party filed a formal ethics complaint against Coughlin. The governor put out a statement suggesting an ethics commission review could be appropriate, adding, "We are confident that none of the administration's interests or initiatives were compromised."

It's too bad the public can't be as confident. All it would have taken was for Coughlin to disclose his discussions at the outset. Under state law, that disclosure is supposed to trigger a review that would either reassign his state duties to another employee, or determine that reassignment wasn't necessary.

Now, the public has the right to wonder if Coughlin's job talks influenced his policy negotiations on the state's behalf.

And the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council has the right to wonder how much the controversy influences their access to the Patrick administration.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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