State filings detail lawmakers’ financial interests, possible conflicts

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston

  • State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland. FILE PHOTO

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ 

Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2019 11:34:22 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Investments in fossil fuel and pharmaceutical companies, some of which have hired lobbyists on Beacon Hill. Paid university teaching jobs and property holdings. 

These are some of the financial interests of Hampshire County’s state lawmakers disclosed in public filings made earlier this year. The “statements of financial interests,” or SFIs, list the financial investments, jobs, property ownership and other sources of income that a public employee had during the previous calendar year and must be filed annually. 

The financial disclosures, filed with the state Ethics Commission, are meant to shed light on local politicians’ possible conflicts of interest. They list the financial interests of not only lawmakers but also of their immediate family members. 

A Gazette review of these filings shows that state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, listed dozens of stock holdings owned by her husband, Luke Bussard — and more money in investment funds. Some of those stock holdings were in companies that have hired lobbyists on Beacon Hill. After the Gazette contacted Blais about those stock shares, she said they were listed erroneously and, late last week, updated her last two years’ worth of SFIs to remove those investments.

Meanwhile, some current and former state lawmakers who have committed to fighting climate change were directly invested in fossil fuel companies in 2018.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, a staunch opponent of fossil fuel pipeline projects, listed stock ownership in two prominent pipeline companies: Kinder Morgan, Inc. and Energy Transfer Partners. Comerford told the Gazette that until she filed her first SFI, she had been unaware of the investments. She said she has already directed a financial manager to move her money into “more socially responsible funds.” 

When the Gazette initially pulled Blais’ financial disclosures earlier this month, the SFI listed 88 separate financial investments of $1,000 or more owned by her spouse — including stock in Massachusetts-based biotech businesses, fossil fuel companies and several corporations in the entertainment industry.

At least five of those companies have hired lobbyists on Beacon Hill, according to state lobbying records: Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge-based biotech company Biogen, the medical device giant Medtronic, Charter Communications, and Comcast Cable Communications. Comcast also contracts directly with the state.

Asked about these investments early last week, Blais said that an assistant to her family’s financial adviser had provided her with incorrect information about her family’s investments in 2017 and 2018. 

Blais then posted two amended SFIs to the Ethics Commision’s website for the years 2017 and 2018, which removed the common stock investments that previously had been listed in her SFIs. Her filings from 2015 and 2016, when she worked at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, still contain those stocks.

In an interview Monday, Blais said that her husband’s investment portfolio had changed between 2016 and 2017, but that her financial adviser had provided an incorrect list of the family’s complete holdings when Blais went to file her 2017 and 2018 SFIs. 

“I can’t speak to why he made that decision, but they were sold off,” she said of her husband changing his investments. “It was just a mistake in what was provided to me.” 

Blais added that she believes SFIs are important tools for identifying potential conflicts of interest. 

“I think that it’s important for the constituents of the 1st Franklin District to know that as soon as I found out that I had been provided with incorrect information, I took immediate steps to correct it,” she said.

Generally speaking, public employees in the state are prohibited from having a direct or indirect financial interest in a contract made by a state agency. 

However, there are exceptions to that prohibition. If a state employee owns less than 1 percent of the stock of a corporation that contracts with the state, for example, they are exempt from the prohibition. 

If a state legislator does own more than 1 percent of stock in a corporation that contracts with Massachusetts, they can be eligible for a separate exemption so long as that contract was made through a competitive bidding process and that lawmaker’s ownership does not exceed 10 percent of the corporation’s stock. In that case, the legislator would be exempt so long as they file a disclosure of their or their family’s financial interests.

In addition, the state also places limits on a public employee’s ability to exercise certain official duties if that employee owns stock in a corporation.

That employee “must refrain from participating as a state employee in a particular matter if its effect on the corporation is such that a reasonable investor would consider it material in deciding whether to buy, sell or hold the corporation’s stock,” according to a synopsis of the law on the State Ethics Commission’s website. That employee would also have to submit a written disclosure of their family’s interests.

It is unclear how much stock lawmakers own in any particular company, according to their SFIs. The Ethics Commission simply requests that they list investments over $1,000. Critics have in the past pushed for greater detail to be included in these disclosures, and for the documents to be more easily accessible. (See sidebar.)

Ethical concerns

One national expert on government ethics and lobbying said corporate investments made by lawmakers and their family members can pose a “serious ethical concern.”

“It poses a very egregious conflict of interest,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen. 

Holman said lawmakers with such investments could be in a position to take actions or promote legislation that would directly benefit the companies they own stock in — and, by extension, themselves.

There are also instances when a lawmaker’s financial interests seem to conflict with their publicly stated political positions.

When state Sen. Jo Comerford successfully ran for the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester State Senate seat in 2018, she voiced her opposition to the expansion of natural gas infrastructure in the state on her campaign website. 

“I’ll fight for … new investments in renewable energy and an end to pouring state resources into fossil fuels,” read her “Issues” webpage. “I oppose the expansion of gas pipelines in Massachusetts.”

However, in the section of Comerford’sSFI requiring her to list financial investments with a fair market value over $1,000, she disclosed that she owns common stock in Kinder Morgan, Inc., the fossil fuel infrastructure company whose pipeline expansion project through the Otis State Forest drew the ire of environmental activists in the state.

Kinder Morgan currently has one registered lobbyist working on Beacon Hill, according to state lobbying records.

On her webpage, Comerford also cites her role opposing pipeline expansion when she worked as a campaign director with the progressive organization MoveOn.

“While at MoveOn, my colleagues and I, joined by MoveOn members across the nation, joined forces with Native American leaders to protest the Dakota Pipeline,” she said, referring to Dakota Access Pipeline that was subject to massive protests over concerns about its environmental impact and location on indigenous nation land. 

But Comerford'sSFI shows her owning stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Comerford also owns stock in the oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell.

Those investments appear in Comerford’s filings for both 2017 and 2018.

In an interview, Comerford said the investments listed on her SFI are the accumulation of a 34-year work history, as well as the result of the recent deaths of her mother and aunt. She added that, when she filed her first SFI as part of her campaign for state Senate, it was the first time she noticed those investments in fossil fuel interests.

“Honestly, they jumped out to me, too,” she said.

Comerford said she and her wife, Ann Hennessey, have started the process of transferring their money into investments that match their social and political values. That process, she added, began before the Gazette began working on this story.

Comerford is not the only local lawmaker who was invested in fossil fuels in 2018.

Stephen Kulik, who worked during his time in the Legislature to reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels, in 2018 held stock in Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Eversource Energy and General Electric.

Kulik, a Worthington Democrat who retired from the Legislature last year, could not be reached for comment this week.

Comerford’s predecessor, Stan Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, also spoke in favor of climate action, advocating in a Gazette column in March 2018 for a “state-based, market-driven approach to reduce the use of carbon.” Rosenberg has money invested in two fossil fuel-based “exchange-traded funds”: VanEck Vectors Oil Services ETF and the SPDR energy select sector fund XLE.

“You guys really are stretching, aren’t you?” Rosenberg said when contacted by the Gazette about his financial holdings while Senate president.  

Rosenberg said his fossil fuel shares total at most 50 shares, which is less than the 58 shares of green energy stock he said he owns — more specific detail than is currently included in SFIs. Rosenberg added that his local investment broker buys and sells the stocks in his portfolio and that he told his broker to minimize dirty energy stocks. 

“I wanted to be as socially responsible an investor as I could be with my very few dollars,” he said.

Rosenberg said that as a small investor, it is hard to avoid fossil fuel holdings altogether, given investments that are often a part of larger retirement accounts like his own. 

That was a point echoed by Comerford, as well as by Andra Rose, who is on the leadership team of the Massachusetts chapter of the climate-focused nonprofit Mothers Out Front.

“Our individual actions, including our investments, of course matter,” Rose said. “But what most matters is changing systems.”

Rose said that the local delegation of state lawmakers have been willing to stand up for strong climate policies. And for Rose, that’s more important than demanding those legislators completely disentangle their investments from the “immoral systems” that currently define our fossil fuel-based economy.

Peter Whelan, a Hadley resident and member of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, said his organization does want full divestment from fossil fuels and would encourage local politicians to divest. But he added that there is no use in shaming any one individual.

“The important thing now is that everyone start telling the truth about the climate crisis, and that we start taking deep action toward carbon neutrality,” Whelan said. “The climate crisis is real and business as usual is death.”

Other disclosures

In addition to investments, SFIs also reveal other paid positions that elected officials are able to hold while in office. 

Some elected officials have teaching gigs at public universities. State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, for example, makes between $10,000 and $20,000 as a political science lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Lesser, whose office declined to comment for this story, also holds two other jobs where he makes between $10,000 and $20,000: as an instructor at Harvard University, his alma mater, and as a consultant for HBO on the television show “Veep.”

Regarding his role with HBO, Lesser filed a “Disclosure of Appearance of Conflict of Interest” with the state on March 1, due to the fact that he may vote on an amendment or other legislation concerning the Massachusetts film tax credit incentive program.

In that disclosure, Lesser stated that he didn’t believe his consultant work with HBO would result in “any improper influence or undue enjoyment or influence” in his role as a public official.

“I am submitting this disclosure in an abundance of caution, as no current conflicts exist,” Lesser wrote. “I do not have decision-making nor management authority in my role with ‘Veep.’ My responsibility is to advise the creative team on the script and plot ideas.”

Lawmakers’ 2018 SFIs

Natalie Blais (amended)

Dan Carey

Jo Comerford

Mindy Domb

Adam Hinds

Donald Humason

Stephen Kulik

Eric Lesser

Stan Rosenberg

Lindsay Sabadosa

John Scibak

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.



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