E-mails detail biotech meetings (9/9/2007)

E-mails detail biotech meetings
Timing of job talks, incentives at issue
By Frank Phillips, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, September 8 2007

Former state economic undersecretary Robert K. Coughlin met with state biotechnology executives to develop lucrative tax breaks for the industry at the same time that he was entering discussions with the biotech trade group to become its next president, newly released e-mails show.

Among the meetings was a June 5 session in his Beacon Hill office attended by an executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and an executive from a biotech company, Shire Pharmaceuticals. During the meeting, according to the e-mails, Coughlin invited the executives to submit draft language that could be included in legislation for the industry's tax credits.

The same week as that meeting, Coughlin was in separate contact with the biotechnology council's search firm, setting up a meeting with the council's executive search committee that was interviewing candidates for the vacant presidency. That gathering occurred on June 11, and eventually led to his hiring by the council on Aug. 11. He assumed the post last week, replacing former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran.

Over six weeks during June and July, as he continued acting as Governor Deval Patrick's point person on life sciences initiatives, Coughlin never told the governor's office that he was simultaneously seeking the biotech council's top job, as is required by state Ethics Commission rules. He ultimately disclosed his candidacy to administration officials on July 24.

Coughlin's actions, first reported by the Globe last month, have led to an Ethics Commission inquiry. The Patrick administration released the e-mails and other correspondence this week under a public information request by the Globe, and also sent copies of the latest records to the Ethics Commission, said an administration official who participated in the decision to forward the documents to the commission.

The paper trail indicates that Coughlin met with biotechnology executives on issues relating to Patrick's efforts to boost the biotech industry in Massachusetts on a number of occasions, including the June 5 meeting and additional meetings on June 21 and June 29.

The purpose of the June 5 meeting with the industry representatives was to draw up draft language for legislation that would give biotech firms a series of tax incentives for operating in Massachusetts. The meeting was attended by members of Coughlin's staff, the biotech council's chief of external affairs, Eustacia Reidy, and the senior director of the tax group at Shire Pharmaceuticals, Dan Ostien.

Ostien said in an e-mail to Coughlin and other participants the next day that his firm was "acting on undersecretary Coughlin's message and objectives," by developing draft language for the administration's tax incentive bill. Ostien was not available for comment yesterday. Shire Pharmaceuticals, which operates labs in Cambridge, has proposed a major expansion in Lexington, but is seeking local and state tax incentives.

In another e-mail about the tax incentive legislation, dated June 11, Ostien wrote to Coughlin: "We look forward to meeting with your team and the MBC Policy and Public affairs office through this process."

Just over three hours after Ostien sent that June 11 e-mail, Coughlin met with the biotech council's search committee chairman and the association's chief operating officer at the Bristol Lounge in the Four Seasons Hotel Boston to discuss the council's presidency.

A spokesman for the biotech council, Ray Howell, said Coughlin's June 5 meeting with the industry executives was part of his job, which involved meetings with dozens of companies from multiple industries. Meanwhile, Coughlin maintains that entering discussions about the possibility of a job did not make him a candidate for the post. "At the time of the meeting, Bob Coughlin was not a candidate for the president's job," Howell said. "Bob Coughlin was doing precisely the job he was supposed to be doing, and as subsequent events show, he was doing it very well."

Another e-mail exchange released by the administration indicates that Coughlin used Red Sox tickets given to his office by WEEI, a local sports radio station, to entertain the chief executive of Organogenesis Inc., Geoff MacKay, in the station's skybox at Fenway Park on May 12.

MacKay, just over two months later, provided a reference for Coughlin in his biotech council job application. Before the Red Sox game, Organogenesis had agreed to abandon plans to leave the state after receiving $12.9 million in state loans and grants.

Coughlin's office got the Red Sox tickets for having placed state-financed ads with the station that touted the administration's efforts in persuading Organogenesis to abandon plans to leave the state. Because the ethics rules are unclear, the governor has instructed the executive agencies to develop a policy over the use of tickets and submit them to him for approval. After Coughlin disclosed to the administration that he was a candidate for the biotech council job, he asked MacKay to call the chairman of the council's search committee chairman on his behalf.

"Left a good message on Mark Leuchtenberger's cell phone . . . ," MacKay told Coughlin in a July 28 e-mail, referring to the president of Targanta Therapeutics who headed the council's effort to find Finneran's replacement. Two days later the two CEO's spoke, according to the e-mails. "Mark just called back and we had a productive call," he told Coughlin.

While Coughlin would not comment, Howell said Coughlin had assured himself that he was acting within the law regarding use of the Red Sox tickets by consulting with the Ethics Commission, but that Coughlin does not have written records showing that he took that step. Both the Ethics Commission and the state economic development office would not comment.

"The tickets given to the CEO of Organogenesis were a part of this comprehensive effort [by Bob Coughlin], one that was successful in keeping the company from moving out of Massachusetts," Howell said. The agreement between Coughlin's office and Organogenesis was reached a week before the Red Sox game, on May 4.

Despite his report of a "productive" phone call with Leuchtenberger, MacKay, in an interview, said he was not in a position to influence the council's decision because his firm had not been active in the council for several years.

The state's Ethics Commission says the conflict of interest law requires public officials to inform their appointing authorities of any meeting they hold with prospective employers if those officials are participating in matters that affect the group's financial interests.

After July 24, Coughlin stopped working on the administration's life science agenda.

His lawyer, Thomas R. Kiley, said the Ethics Commission's interpretation of the statute - that initial meetings, where employment is discussed, trigger a required disclosure and potential recusal - does not reflect the law. Saying the first meeting June 11 was a "greet and meet" session, not a job interview.


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