WITH DRAMATIC exceptions, such as recent FBI photos allegedly showing state Senator Dianne Wilkerson palming cash bribes in a restaurant, corruption in Massachusetts is well-shielded. Governor Patrick's new task force on public integrity will need to push aside a lot of underbrush on Beacon Hill to uncover the rot. Suspicion that some officials are putting their own interests above those of the public are probably greater now than at any time since 1977, when former state senators Joseph DiCarlo of Revere and Ronald MacKenzie of Burlington were convicted in federal court of shaking down a consulting firm overseeing the construction of UMass-Boston. Allegations of wrongdoing at the time reached all the way to the offices of the House speaker and Senate president.
Today, key legislative leaders are again under a cloud. The state inspector general reported recently that three close associates of House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi received more than $1.8 million in unreported lobbying fees from the software firm Cognos. DiMasi, meanwhile, is blocking efforts by the state Ethics Commission to determine what, if any, role he may have played in steering contracts to Cognos. Another high-profile legislator, House majority leader John Rogers, fell under the scrutiny of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance regarding payments that a political adviser made on Rogers's vacation home. Toss in an FBI complaint indicating that more elected officials may be linked to Wilkerson's alleged extortion of undercover agents posing as developers, and the view of public servants grows dimmer still. The 12-person task force, chaired by the governor's chief legal counsel, Ben Clements, will meet for the first time next week. It has less than 60 days to make recommendations on how to strengthen ethics and lobbying laws. That may not be enough time to address needed changes in legislative rules and chairmanship appointments that concentrate power and foster too-cozy relationships between top lawmakers and lobbyists. But the panel should have time to address the more obvious weaknesses in the system.
The maximum penalties for violations of conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure laws are a joke - just $2,000 per violation. They should be raised to at least $10,000 per violation. The $5,000 criminal penalty for bribery, which hasn't changed since 1962, should be raised to at least $25,000. Requiring public officials to report income, property values, debts forgiven, and other financial information by actual dollar amount instead of in broad ranges would also allow more sunshine into the system. Corruption and conflicts of interest not only undermine public confidence but bump up the cost of government. Politically wired firms with little fear of competition, for example, are not likely to be cost-conscious or adhere to basic bidding rules. The task force should explore efforts in other states, such as Wisconsin, to provide searchable databases that reveal the nuts and bolts of state contracts, including lobbyist activities. But nothing would likely get the attention of legislators as much as a recommendation on ways to cut the pensions of those who violate ethics laws. Currently, it takes a criminal conviction to put a public official's pension at risk. But establishing a link between pensions and civil infractions of the kind enforced by the Ethics Commission would shake up complacent officials. Increasing the statute of limitations on ethical violations from three to five years might also keep public officials on their toes.
Sixty days surely won't be long enough to deal with all the scandals sapping the public's confidence in their supposed servants. The ethical deficiency extends far beyond Beacon Hill. Just look at the federal investigation of suspected disability pension fraud by Boston firefighters. But Patrick's task force can at least begin to contemplate the big picture. Fortunately, the panel includes several former corruption prosecutors known as heavy hitters. That should level the field for an overmatched public. Legislators come out swinging when defending themselves against possible corruption charges, and they know all the angles. To quiet the public's concern about bid rigging in the late 1970s, the Legislature created an inspector general's office. But it shielded lawmakers from the IG's subpoena power. It's typical of the way the game plays out. Ethics investigators sometimes refer to cases as "pre-Scaccia" and "post-Scaccia," a reference to state Representative Angelo Scaccia, who tangled with the Ethics Commission in the 1990s for taking free meals and golf games from lobbyists. Scaccia pushed back, leading to a Supreme Judicial Court ruling requiring a direct link between a gift and a specific act, such as a vote, to bring a case under the state's illegal gratuity law. It's an unrealistically high bar that does not factor in how lobbyists insinuate themselves over time into the legislative process.
DiMasi is claiming legislative immunity in his refusal to provide records to the Ethics Commission on the Cognos matter. The obscure "speech and debate" clause of the state constitution offers lawmakers broad protections against prosecution for their legislative acts. But just how broad? Should this long-dormant clause bar a civil enforcement agency like the Ethics Commission from investigating schemes to defraud the public? The task force should consider these and other questions. Any substantive recommendations by the task force will need to go through the Legislature. And lawmakers have shown little willingness in the past to shine a light on themselves, at least when it comes to ethics. Some public values can't be legislated. Ultimately, there might be only one way to disinfect Beacon Hill: elect better people.