Former aide to Patrick fined for ethics violation

By Frank Phillips and Todd Wallack
Glboe Staff / December 23, 2008
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The state Ethics Commission has imposed a $10,000 fine on a former top economic development aide to Governor Deval Patrick for secretly pursuing the presidency of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council last year while at the same time using his state job to help develop tax breaks and other incentives that were crucial to the industry trade group.

The commission's investigation found that Robert K. Coughlin, a former state representative, began his quest for the $350,000-a-year Mass Biotech job just a few weeks after the new governor hired him to be undersecretary of business development.

He then spent the next five months secretly seeking the private-sector position without telling his superiors in Patrick's administration and without removing himself from policy decisions affecting his future employer, as required by state law, the Ethics Commission said.

Coughlin was a key Patrick administration official involved in developing the governor's $1 billion biotech industry stimulus, which included tax incentives and development grants for biotech companies in Massachusetts.

The Ethics Commission, in finding Coughlin violated state ethics law, said his actions created an appearance that the Mass Biotech Council ``could unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties.''

The ethics investigation was sparked by a Globe story about Coughlin's job-seeking activities with the Mass Biotech Council that appeared shortly after he accepted the job in August 2007. Despite the fine, the Biotech Council said yesterday it would take no action against Coughlin and planned to keep him in the high-profile post, in which he serves as the public face of the state's huge and influential biopharmaceutical industry.

The council, which has 550 members, including many large corporations, lobbies Beacon Hill on life science issues and the industry's economic needs. Coughlin's predecessor in the job, Thomas F. Finneran, the former House speaker, was forced to resign under a cloud after pleading guilty to federal obstruction charges almost two years ago.

In a statement, council chairman Mark Leuchtenberger, said the council is ''happy to have closure on this case.''

''Bob Coughlin has done a great job leading the MBC and we are confident we made the right choice in appointing him president. We look forward to having Bob lead the organization in 2009 and beyond,'' said Leuchtenberger. Leuchtenberger led the search committee last year that chose Coughlin, a former Democratic state representative from Dedham.

David Giannotti, an ethics commission spokesman, said the Coughlin investigation was still considered a confidential matter and declined to comment. The Globe obtained the Ethics Commission findings from a person whom Coughlin authorized to release the agreement.

Coughlin expressed relief in a statement that the15-month investigation which was clouded his tenure as head of the 550-member council was over.

"I'm glad to have this matter resolved,'' he said ''I have a great job and I love coming to work every day to lead an organization that represents not just jobs and growth opportunities, but most importantly improving the lives of patients.''

The ethics probe paints a more detailed picture of Coughlin's job-search activities while he was a state official than had previously been made public, and it shows than he was more active, and active far earlier, than was previously disclosed.

Shortly after accepting his state job in January, Coughlin had several conversations in February and March with officials at the Council in which he said he was interested in being considered for the group's presidency, the Ethics Commission said. By late March he had put his name on the list of potential candidates with its private Boston search firm, Levin & Co. On April 1, he submitted his resume to the council.

But it was not until July 24, after meetings and interviews with the council's search committee, that Coughlin disclosed to Patrick that he was a candidate for the lucrative post.

The investigation also concluded that Coughlin kept his activities secret from his immediate boss, Daniel O'Connell, Patrick's secretary of housing and economic development. It found that in early May 2007, Coughlin had a ''brief conversation in passing'' in which Coughlin told O'Connell that he was in the ''wide net'' of potential candidates for the MBC presidency. It concluded he did not tell O'Connell that he submitted his resume or had met with the search firm owner or the MBC's search committee.

Patrick spokesman, Joseph Landolfi, said the governor had ''cooperated fully'' with the probe, but declined to comment on the case because it has not been publicly released by the Ethics Commission.

''If, however, the Commission concludes that Mr. Coughlin committed any violations, we fully support the imposition of sanctions,'' Landolfi said.

Coughlin's attorney, Thomas R. Kiley, last year described some of Coughlin's meetings as ''meet and greet'' sessions that did not require disclosure to his superiors in state government. Kiley said last year that Coughlin was not applying for the job when he spoke with the selection committee on June 11.

Despite the ethics investigation that has dogged Coughlin during his first year on the job and the $10,000 fine, some biotech executives praised his performance yesterday.

``I am glad this cloud is behind him and we can move on,’’ said John Maraganore, chief executive of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., a prominent biotechnology firm in Cambridge.

Maraganore said he thinks Coughlin has brought a lot of passion to the biotech council job, noting Coughlin’s son suffers from cystic fibrosis.

“I think (Coughlin) is off to a phenomenal start,'' he said.

Coughlin is given an undisclosed annual performance bonus added to his $350,000 a year salary. Finneran received more overall, $475,904 in 2006, including roughly $430,000 in salary. Finneran received $246,850 in 2007, even though he resigned less than two weeks into the year, mostly for severance, accrued vacation and other departure pay.

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