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Patrick aide faces ethics complaint

Governor insists no damage done

Governor Deval Patrick defended his administration's actions yesterday but did not object to a possible Ethics Commission review of a top economic development aide who worked on major state biotechnology initiatives while simultaneously seeking the top job at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

Patrick came under pressure yesterday from the Massachusetts Republican Party, which filed a formal ethics complaint against the aide, Robert K. Coughlin, undersecretary for economic development and a former two-term state legislator.

Without mentioning the GOP complaint, the governor suggested a commission review could be appropriate, but went no further.

"We are confident that none of the administration's interests or initiatives were compromised," said a statement released by Patrick's office yesterday.

"Mr. Coughlin leaves his post in the administration in four days," the statement said. "Any further review should lie with the Ethics Commission."

The Globe reported yesterday that Coughlin waited six weeks before notifying the governor that he had been in talks with the Biotechnology Council about becoming its next president.

During that period Coughlin, the undersecretary of economic development, continued to play a major role in Patrick's life science initiatives, including tax credits for biotechnology firms.

Coughlin also has played a key role in a $1 billion Massachusetts stem cell and biotech development initiative that would provide a big boost to the industry's fortunes.

On next Tuesday, Coughlin is expected to assume the trade group post, which could pay as much as $500,000 annually.

The governor's office did not respond to questions about its own review of Coughlin's conduct.

The Globe reported yesterday that Coughlin first met to talk about the job with the Biotechnology Council's search committee chairman, Mark Leuchtenberger, president of Targanta Therapeutics Inc., and other committee members on June 11.

The post became vacant in January when former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran resigned after pleading guilty to a federal charge of obstruction of justice stemming from a legislative redistricting case.

Despite meeting with Leuchtenberger and subsequent contacts with the council's search team, Coughlin did not file a disclosure with Patrick, as required by law, until July 24. He then recused himself from overseeing life science issues. The council announced his appointment Aug. 13.

"Once Mr. Coughlin notified the governor's office that he was planning to talk with the biotech council about a position there, he was advised to immediately recuse himself from participating in any matter in which the biotech council or any of its members may have a financial interest and to file all appropriate disclosures with his appointing authority and the Ethics Commission," Patrick said in his statement. "Those steps were taken."

Coughlin's immediate boss in the Patrick administration, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Daniel O'Connell, also rallied to Coughlin's defense. "I'm comfortable and confident that Bob has made every effort to comply with the process and relevant statutes," O'Connell told the Associated Press. "It is my belief that Bob fully complied with state ethics procedures."

The Ethics Commission says the state's conflict-of-interest law, which carries civil and criminal penalties, requires public officials to notify their appointing authorities of any meetings they have with prospective employers about a job if they are participating in matters that affect the employers' financial interests.

Coughlin's lawyer, Thomas R. Kiley, maintains that the Ethics Commission's interpretation does not reflect the law.

The commission, citing its rules and regulations, refused to comment on whether it would investigate Coughlin. The agency does initiate investigations based on news reports and complaints filed by citizens.

The Biotechnology Council insisted that its officials and Coughlin, who signed his contract Friday, strictly adhered to the state's statutes.

"Bob Coughlin and the [Massachusetts Biotechnology Council] were aware of, sensitive to, and scrupulous about adhering to all of the appropriate ethical and legal issues involved in this process," the statement said.

But the state GOP's interim state director, Robert Willington, said Coughlin's "apparent failure to disclose his job hunting" raises questions about whether "Patrick administration officials are conducting the public business or their own business."

"It's time for the State Ethics Commission to hold a training seminar for the Patrick administration," Willington said.

He pointed out that Patrick faced a GOP-inspired Ethics Commission inquiry after the Globe reported last winter that he advocated for a troubled mortgage lender by calling a New York-based bank that is regulated by the state. The commission found no violation of law.

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