Processing Magazine

Biotech chief fined $10,000 over ethics

December 29, 2008

The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts’ 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 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 biotechnology industry stimulus, which included tax incentives and development grants for companies in Massachusetts. The Ethics Commission, in finding Coughlin violated state ethics law, said his actions created an appearance that the Mass Biotechnology Council "could unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties." Despite the fine, the Biotechnology Council said that 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 Globe obtained the Ethics Commission findings from a person whom Coughlin authorized to release the agreement. In a statement, Coughlin expressed relief that the 15-month investigation that has clouded his tenure as head of the Biotechnology Council is over. Shortly after accepting his state job in January, Coughlin had several conversations in February and March with officials at the Biotech Council in which he expressed interest in the 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. But it was not until July 24, after meetings with the council''s search committee, that Coughlin disclosed to Patrick that he was a candidate for the post. The investigation 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 Biotechnology Council presidency. It concluded that he did not tell O''Connell that he submitted his resume or had met with the search firm''s owner or the search committee. Patrick''s spokesman, Joseph Landolfi, said the governor has cooperated fully with the investigation, but declined to comment on the case because it has not been publicly released by the Ethics Commission.