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Governor names 7 UMass trustees

Strengthens his support amid changes at top

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / September 9, 2011

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Governor Deval L. Patrick has consolidated his grip on the University of Massachusetts board of trustees with the appointment yesterday of seven new members, several of whom are trusted political aides and fund-raisers.

As part of the move, he has also reappointed Fall River businessman James J. Karam, a close political ally and fund-raiser, as board chairman, just weeks after the attorney general found that the search Karam led for a new president was conducted illegally behind closed doors.

The governor’s appointments guarantee that he will have a strong working majority at a critical time when the board will chose new chancellors for the Amherst and Dartmouth campuses and as newly installed university president Robert Caret - a newcomer to Massachusetts and its politics - settles into his job.

The other six appointees are: Jeffrey Mullan, Patrick’s recently resigned secretary of transportation; attorney Margaret D. Xifaras of Marion, a longtime activist in Patrick’s campaigns; Lawrence M. Carpman, a Democratic political consultant who is often a spokesman for the state party; Alyce J. Lee of Milton, former chief of staff to Mayor Thomas Menino; Richard P. Campbell, a Boston lawyer; and Zoila M. Gomez, a Lawrence attorney and former congressional aide to former US Representative Martin T. Meehan.

All but Lee are graduates of one of the five University of Massachusetts campuses.

Patrick’s new selections remove the last remnants of appointees from Republican governors, including figures such as Stephen Tocco, a Romney appointee who chaired the board.

Patrick aides said Karam, who is the longest-serving trustee of the 22-member board, would serve as chairman only through the current academic year, although he would continue to sit on the board until 2013. Karam, a graduate of UMass Dartmouth, has been particularly protective of that campus.

Brendan Ryan, Patrick’s director of communications, defended the governor’s choices, acknowledging the political ties, but citing the appointees’ qualifications.

“The governor was looking for people who are energetic about and committed to UMass as he is,’’ Ryan said. “They are public servants, civic leaders and UMass alums, and most importantly their commitment is the university.’’

Karam is part of a powerful political clan that wields strong influence in Southeastern Massachusetts and has strongly supported Patrick. He chaired the presidential search committee process which last year led to a firestorm after the governor stepped in and blocked the appointment of Meehan, who has been UMass Lowell chancellor since 2007.

At the time, well-placed administration sources said Patrick - still smarting about his failed attempt to force a Massachusetts authority to hire State Senator Marian Walsh to a high-paying job - was concerned that Meehan’s appointment would appear to be an inside political maneuver. He also worried it would create a negative image for the university system.

Despite that, the governor has now turned to his political associates to help him gain full control of the university’s governing board. He has particularly strong political ties to Karam.

Since Patrick became the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006, members of the Karam family have donated close to $38,000 to his campaign committee and the state Democratic Party, which he controls.

Just last month, Karam, along with his brother Robert Karam and other political figures in Southeastern Massachusetts, helped to raise over $35,000 in campaign funds for the governor at a New Bedford fundraiser.

In an interview yesterday, Karam took strong exception to the suggestion that his appointment and that of others on the board was political. He noted that he has served eight years on the UMass board and has played major roles as a civic leader in Massachusetts, including helping lead efforts to help save the financially troubled Caritas hospitals.

“It makes a group of dedicated and concerned people who give a lot of their time to good causes and institutions but who are also aligned to this governor and describes them as political hacks,’’ Karam said. “There is not a doubt they have supported the governor, but it doesn’t mean they are not capable of serving and having the best interest of the university in mind.’’

Patrick had appointed Karam chairman earlier this year, shortly after Boston investment banker Robert Manning resigned the post in December after Patrick’s move to block Meehan.

The stormy politics that flared over the presidential search and the governor’s intervention was exacerbated by Attorney General Martha Coakley’s sharp criticism of the process last month. Her office found the committee had engaged in “wide ranging and serious’’ violations of the state’s open-meeting law and ordered the board to go through special training on the statute.

Asked why the governor would reappoint Karam in light of Coakley’s reprimand, Patrick’s spokesman said: “The board made a mistake which they have acknowledged and have taken steps to rectify.’’

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com