On Jan. 3, headlines throughout Massachusetts, and the country, trumpeted Representative Ayanna Pressley’s official entrance into Congress.
But three days earlier, a far quieter transition began in the Pressley household: Her husband, Conan Harris, submitted his resignation to City Hall, giving up his $92,500-a-year post as a public safety adviser to Mayor Martin J. Walsh to launch his own consulting company.
The move, Harris said, is designed to provide him more “flexibility professionally.” But an ethics expert warns he and Pressley will have to be mindful to avoid any potential ethical and political pitfalls as she builds her profile in Washington and he grows his client list.
Pressley aides say Harris is not pursuing any work involving the federal government through Conan Harris & Associates, the company he registered on Jan. 15 — four days after officially leaving his City Hall post. He said he’s also in contact with the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Harris did not answer questions about who his clients are, though one has been made public: College Bound Dorchester, an education nonprofit that helps gang-involved youth work toward a college degree.
The timing of his business launch, however, could look as if he’s “launching on the heels of her success,” said Meredith McGehee, the executive director of Issue One, a Washington-based advocacy group focused on government ethics.
“The burden is on the public official to put in place voluntary restrictions to say, ‘I’m going to bend over backwards to make sure questions of impropriety or special favors do not arise,’ ” McGehee said. “It’s something that is manageable, if done properly.”
And as a consultant seeking new clients, ethical minefields are everywhere.
For example, as Harris’s days dwindled in the city’s Office of Public Safety, he used his city-issued e-mail account to pitch Walsh’s chief of staff on staying on as a consultant.
He offered to work eight hours a week as an “interim senior advisor” to the public safety office and the city’s My Brother’s Keeper program, which Harris ran, according to e-mails obtained through a public records request. The proposed cost: $50,000 a year, paid in pro-rated, renewable contracts — or about half of what he made as a full-time employee.
City officials say they did not solicit nor accept the offer.
State ethics laws bar municipal employees from knowingly using official resources for personal gain, above a certain threshold. Generally, ethics regulators would only pursue action in cases involving an improper use of a public position if it involved resources of “substantial value,” deemed by the state to be $50 or more.
Harris — who responded to questions through Pressley’s political advisers — said he never willfully used his public position for his own benefit or “in any way that violated my understanding of my obligations under state ethics laws.”
“I, at one point, used my municipal e-mail account to convey my eagerness to continue to support the My Brother’s Keeper team,” Harris, 41, said, referring to the program modeled after then-President Obama’s efforts to close the gap between men of color and their potential achievements. He said the pitch sprung from a “conversation” — though he didn’t say with whom — about whether he could continue to help after he left City Hall.
“If any mistakes were made,” Harris said, “I am eager to address them to ensure I remain in full compliance.”Reach Matt Stout at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @mattpstout