Walsh asks reform on ethics amid turmoil over sponsorship

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Nov. 19, 2008

House Majority Leader John Rogers, whose bid to succeed Speaker Salvatore DiMasi suffered a setback last week when rival House Ways and Mean chair Robert DeLeo gathered scores of supporters in a show of strength, has begun calling members and asking them to remain loyal to DiMasi as whispers grow louder of eroding support for the speaker.

Two of Rogers's top allies in the House - one of them Dorchester's own Martin Walsh - this week rolled out an ethics reform package that would limit a House speaker's terms to three, open Ethics Committee hearings to the public, and charge an independent private entity to take over legislative redistricting responsibilities from lawmakers.

Amid an array of ethics controversies engulfing Beacon Hill, the 12-point package circulated to colleagues by Walsh and Rep. John Quinn calls for stricter disclosure rules around bills advancing from the House budget committee, which DeLeo chairs, and would require a public hearing within 30 days for all bills filed by the governor. Walsh said the pair would likely file a bill in January, when Gov. Deval Patrick has said he will file his own ethics reform package and when both branches historically revisit the rules that guide their activities.

The announcement by Quinn and Walsh means DiMasi, who is entwined in ethics investigations into payments made to his close associates, could face a double-barreled rules reform effort in the new year, with Republicans and conservative Democrats lining up changes.

DiMasi last week called the state's ethics laws the "toughest" in the nation.

The Quinn-Walsh proposal would restore the speakership term limits repealed under former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, and place a three-term cap on the post. The position of Speaker Pro Tem, created by DiMasi after he became speaker in 2004, would be elected by the majority party caucus and potentially create "a counter balance" to the speaker, according to a draft version of the plan.

The threshold to convene a party caucus would decline from 25 percent to 10 percent and to call a special session of the House would slide from a majority to one-third of the membership.

The package would also mandate that equal numbers from each party sit on the House Ethics Committee, which is now controlled by Democrats. Quinn and Walsh, who were stripped of their chairs when DiMasi took over for Finneran, want bipartisan subcommittees empowered with drafting and filing legislation.

Their plan would also reform the earmark system, vaguely outlining temporary moratoriums, lobbyist request forms, sponsor disclosure, and justification requirements.

Walsh - who represents Dorchester's 13th Suffolk district - called the plan an outline and said he and Quinn (D-Dartmouth) intended to file full legislation in January.

"It's something that this legislative term there's been so many issues in the Legislature as a whole that I think to some degree we've all lost sight of what we're doing here," he said.

Other state representatives said they disagreed with elements of the proposal.

"I feel the way about term limits as I do about electing people to the General Court and to the Senate. I'm against term limits," said Rep. Michael Moran (D-Brighton), a DeLeo backer. "We have term limits, and they're called elections."

Moran also criticized the recommendation that Ethics Committee hearings become public, arguing, "Just by nature, the issues that come up in an Ethics Committee hearing could be personal and should remain personal."

He also said that gubernatorial legislation should not receive a 30-day timeline for a hearing, calling member-filed bills equally important.

Rogers, who is facing ethics allegations that his political consultant used payments from Rogers's campaign committee to make payments on a Falmouth home the two shared, released a statement in tepid support of the Quinn-Walsh plan.

"I applaud their proactive efforts and support and embrace, in a general sense, their reforms as we continue to welcome ideas that improve how we conduct the business of the people," the Norwood Democrat said in a statement. "I'm also eager to review the full reform proposal when that occurs."

In an emailed statement, a DeLeo spokesman said, "The Chairman welcomes these additional ideas. When the Governor announced the creation of his Public Integrity Task Force in October, Chairman DeLeo expressed interest in working with him on his proposal. When the details of the taskforce's recommendations are released, he will be eager to work with the Governor and members of the Legislature on meaningful ethics reform."

David Guarino, a spokesman for DiMasi, declined to immediately comment.