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Ethics panel weighs case of senator

BOSTON — The Ethics Commission is weighing changes to the state’s ethics rules that could allow Sen. Dan Wolf to renew his campaign for governor and keep his seat in the Legislature.

The commission voted 4-1 on Thursday to consider a change that would allow elected officials and candidates to have contracts with the state when those contracts are more like licenses or fees than contracts to conduct business or provide services to the state.

The commission met to consider Wolf’s contention that his ownership stake in Cape Air, the regional airline he helped create 25 years ago, doesn’t violate conflict-of-interest laws even though the airline has contracts with Boston Logan International Airport.

Wolf, a Harwich Democrat, says the contracts involve standard fees and aren’t competitively bid.

The five-member commission had earlier ruled that the contracts violated conflict-of-interest laws. It gave Wolf three options: relinquish his 23 percent ownership stake in Cape Air, pull the airline out of Logan or leave the Senate and abandon his gubernatorial bid.

But Wolf, who suspended his campaign for governor, appealed the decision, arguing that the rules were too broad.

He wasn’t alone. A group of petitioners including former state attorneys general Francis Bellotti and Scott Harshbarger, former congressman William Delahunt and former federal judge Nancy Gertner also asked for the change.

“We believe the ethics laws are actually endangered when they are interpreted to be overly broad” and undermine public confidence, said Pam Wilmot, the head of Massachusetts Common Cause, which has participated in the crafting of past state ethics laws.

The decision has been criticized by some people who say it could discourage business owners from seeking public office. Others argue the commission shouldn’t be making exceptions to accommodate lawmakers.

Commission member Martin Murphy said Wolf is raising a valid point, however, since he can’t negotiate the terms of the contract and doesn’t receive any payment from the state and similar contracts are available to any other airline seeking to fly at Logan, which is operated by the Massachusetts Port Authority.

“Fundamentally the contract that we have here seems different than other contracts,” Murphy said.

Other members of the commission said they would prefer the Legislature step in and make any changes but would still consider carving out an exemption for certain types of contracts.

It was unclear how quickly the commission could draft and vote on any change.

After the hearing, Wolf said he was buoyed by the vote.

“I’m pleased that the commission is going to look at the possibility of crafting an exemption that would allow me to stay in the state Senate and allow me to continue a gubernatorial run,” he said.

Wolf said he wouldn’t restart his campaign for governor until a change is approved.

Other Democratic candidates for governor include Attorney General Martha Coakley, state Treasurer Steven Grossman, Newton pediatrician and former Obama administration health care official Don Berwick, former federal and state homeland security official Juliette Kayyem and former Wellesley selectman Joseph Avellone.

Republican Charlie Baker also is running in the 2014 contest.

Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick has said he’s not running for a third term.

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