|Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr said the state must make sure a small group of donors do not enjoy outsized influence.|
Donors helping Patrick travel
Top executives, firms contribute substantial sums
A substantial portion of the funding for Governor Deval Patrick’s two second-term international trade missions has come from a handful of powerful executives and companies with significant financial interests before the state.
Through a nonprofit established by his administration last year called Moving Massachusetts Forward, the Patrick administration collected $130,000 from five donors, according to ethics disclosure forms filed by the governor. Unlike campaign donations, contributions to the group have no limits and are tax-free.
By using a nonprofit to help fund his international travel, Patrick is defraying some of the expense that might have otherwise been borne by taxpayers. But he is also strengthening the financial ties between his administration and the state’s biggest corporate players.
Critics say that while donations to Patrick’s nonprofit are legal and were publicly disclosed, the state would be better off paying the full expense of the trade missions to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“In our book, it’s more important to remove potential conflicts from the public sphere and limit what interests may contribute to public figures,’’ said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog. “Whether it’s in the form of a nonprofit that supports trade missions, whether it’s an inaugural fund, or whether it’s a campaign contribution, these all further the interests of a public official.’’
Patrick has embarked on two trade missions this term: one last March to Israel and England and a second one in December to Brazil and Chile.
The largest donation, $50,000, came from a charitable foundation controlled by John Fish, chief executive of Suffolk Construction, which worked on the modernization of a terminal at Logan International Airport and is building an MBTA transit facility in Revere, among other government projects. Fish attended one leg of Patrick’s trade mission to Israel and flew the governor’s former chief of staff, lobbyist and political consultant Doug Rubin, to the mission on his private jet.
Jack Connors, chairman of the board of Partners HealthCare, donated $25,000 through his family foundation. The state is currently debating fundamental changes to the medical payment system, including controls on spending that could put pressure on the hospital group’s high cost structure.
The State Street Foundation, the charitable arm of the Boston-based financial services giant, gave $25,000. State Street, which for many years had a contract with the state’s pension fund, could pursue that business again when the state reopens bidding in coming months.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, one of Beacon Hill’s top business lobbies, chipped in $25,000, while Staples, the Boston-based office supply chain, rounded out the list of contributors with $5,000.
Administration officials say the nonprofit was conceived by Patrick’s economic development team and enabled by legislation approved in 2010, which encouraged more cooperation with the private sector. But they could not point to specific language in the bill that directs the state to establish such a nonprofit.
Its articles of incorporation, filed in 2011, list Patrick’s economic development secretary, Gregory Bialecki, as its president, treasurer, clerk, and sole director.
Patrick administration officials said the governor did not personally solicit money, leaving the task to Bialecki. Officials also argued that there is no connection between the donors’ business interests and the contributions. They pointed out that many executives who went on the trade missions did not contribute and that some of the contributors did not travel with the governor. Prior to at least one of the trips, the administration announced that private money would be used to help defray costs, even if they did not detail the arrangements at the time.
“This is the right kind of public-private partnership,’’ said Brendan Ryan, Patrick’s spokesman. “Having business groups coordinate with state officials to help sell Massachusetts and open new markets for Massachusetts companies is a good thing. It’s also what our competitor states are doing and something that was lacking under previous administrations.’’
The use of a nonprofit to help pay for the trips was signed off on by administration lawyers in consultation with the State Ethics Commission.
“We take these issues seriously, which is why this plan was vetted and is consistent with all the state ethics rules and laws,’’ Ryan said. “No group that helped cover expenses got any extra benefit, and the arrangement saves the taxpayers money.’’
The donors said they were eager to underwrite an important state initiative - helping Massachusetts expand its global reach and spur business development - and were not seeking access or favor from the governor.
“In the old days, people referred to them as junkets,’’ said Connors, who did not travel with the governor on either trip. But “I find that these are wise investments in trying to convince people to do business here.’’
Connors said it would be “kind of an insult to me and the governor’’ to question whether his donation was intended to curry favor or access.
Connors is active in Democratic politics and has given the maximum $500 donation to Patrick’s state campaigns and to his federal political action committee, which under federal law is allowed to accept up to $5,000 from individuals.
Travel has been a hallmark of Patrick’s second administration, as he promotes his memoir and campaigns on behalf of President Obama. The push for more international travel came from a group made up of leaders from the state’s largest businesses, called the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership. All four corporate donors to Move Massachusetts Forward, the nonprofit, are on that committee.
Fish said that he has no personal business in the countries where Patrick traveled, but feels that the trade missions are “fundamental to our economic success and social success’’ as a state.
Like Connors, Fish is a major political contributor, largely to Democratic causes. He had initially donated $5,000 to Patrick’s federal PAC, but asked that it be returned because, he said, he had already exceeded the overall federal donation limit, which is $70,800 to federal campaign committees in the current two-year election cycle.
He dismissed questions about whether the donations created a potential conflict of interest. “I think it’s misdirected, to be very, very honest with you,’’ he said. “I support business. I support the nonprofit world in Massachusetts, specifically in Boston.’’
Fish said he also asked chamber president Paul Guzzi to contribute. Guzzi said he agreed with the objective of “promoting trade and promoting Massachusetts.’’
“We’re going to have agreements and disagreements with the governor and others, but it was totally independent of that,’’ he said.
Patrick disclosed the donations as part of two submissions to the State Ethics Commission, detailing sources of funding for the trade missions. Private business people and reporters who attended the trade missions paid their own expenses. But expenses for some state employees, totaling about $98,000 for the two missions, were covered by a combination of the private donations and money from five quasi-public state agencies, according to a spokesman for Bialecki.
The same public-private fund was also used to pay the $51,696.62 salary of a new Israeli trade representative.
Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican who serves as Senate minority leader, said the state must make sure the small group of donors who are giving the money do not enjoy outsized influence.
“It’s good that these folks are willing to participate in helping the state on its economic mission,’’ he said. “But on the other hand, you have to wonder if it concentrates too much focus on just a few large players in the economy. There’s an old saying that he who pays the piper calls the tune.’’
Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.