Governor looks to toughen laws on corruption in wake of scandals

By 
Jim O'Sullivan, State House News Service
Jan. 8, 2009

Responding to a series of allegations he said had "rocked the State House," Gov. Deval Patrick unveiled a package of tougher ethics and lobbying rules that he pushed the Legislature to pass within 30 days.

In statements, legislative leaders said only that they would consider meaningful ethics law reforms.

A public integrity task force Patrick convened in November, after Sen. Dianne Wilkerson was slapped with federal public corruption charges, recommended expanded investigative and enforcement authority and tougher penalties on lobbyists and crooked government officials. The panel proposed expanded law enforcement authority to wiretap conversations in public corruption investigations.

Penalties for bribery, now up to $5,000 and three years in jail, would rise to $100,000 and up to 10 years in prison. The task force recommends expanding the definition of lobbying to include strategizing, preparing and planning related to communication with public officials for the purpose of influencing legislative or executive policies. The secretary of state would be granted subpoena powers for more thorough enforcement of state lobbying laws.

Secretary of State William Galvin told the News Service he favored the reform package, although he said policymakers may have to "tweak it a little bit."

"I'm all for it," Galvin said of the subpoena proposal. "I think it's a good program [Patrick] has."

Galvin said he had filed legislation to similar effect, but "It hasn't gone anywhere. Hopefully, with his support, it will."

Gesturing to capitol halls alive with legislative agents on the last day of the 2007-2008 session, Galvin pointed out that the state's lobbying industry does an $80 million annual business, and said, "Obviously special interests are represented here. I think the public has a right to know."

Also under the recommendations, lobbyist filings would be made on a more timely basis and available quickly online, the "revolving door" provision of the lobbying laws would be extended to the executive branch and the allowable "incidental" lobbying hour threshold reduced.

In Massachusetts, a person's lobbying activities are presumed to be incidental if the person engages in such activity for not more than 50 hours, or receives less than $5,000 during any six-month reporting period, a standard the task force called "unusually permissive" compared to other states. The task force recommends legislation to reduce the amount of allowable incidental lobbying to not more than 10 hours or receipt of not more than $2,500 in any reporting period, which will be three months under the proposed legislation.

The task force also recommends making compliance with State Ethics Commission summons mandatory, essentially granting the panel subpoena power.

The Ethics Commission would have rulemaking authority and the attorney general's office would have concurrent jurisdiction with the commission to enforce civil violations of conflict laws.

All state employees would receive a summary of ethics rules when they start government employment and would undergo online ethics training. The secretary of state would conduct mandatory training for lobbyists.

Patrick said he would file legislation Wednesday, the first day of the 2009-2010 legislative session. He said he had reviewed the recommendations with legislative leaders, and said he thought the bill would pass, but did not say whether he thought it would do so within the 30-day timeframe.

"No one can legislate morality," he said during a press conference in the Governor's Council Chambers. "But we can assure ourselves that the consequences of breaching the public trust will be serious, swift, and certain."

The state has been dogged by ethics controversies in recent months, including investigations involving House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas Petrolati, and House Majority Leader John Rogers, among others. When Wilkerson resigned in November, she became the second state senator to do so within a month, following Sen. James Marzilli, who is facing sexual assault charges.

In a statement Tuesday, DiMasi said, "Massachusetts faces serious challenges in the coming year - from finding ways to balance our budget amid a crushing fiscal crisis to reforming our transportation system to make it fairer for all. The best way to maintain and build upon the public's trust is by tackling these problems directly, leveling with people and engaging them in our solutions. In the process, I believe some common sense ethics reforms should be considered. The members of the House will thoroughly review the recommendations from the Governor's task force and we will seriously consider any necessary changes in the new term."

Senate President Therese Murray's spokesman David Falcone said in an email, "The Senate intends to give the plan full consideration in the new legislative session. Many of the measures are already in place in the Senate's ethics training for new members, and we remain open to any meaningful suggestions."

Patrick said he did not think the ethics cloud over Beacon Hill was related to one-party dominance, with Democrats controlling all six constitutional offices, as well as a 90 percent majority in the Legislature.

"Having an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature and Democratic governor doesn't actually mean that we all lock arms and move in the same direction at the same time," he said.

The task force held a public hearing and accepted input through a website, but its deliberations were conducted behind closed doors. Its chair, Patrick general counsel Ben Clements, defended the secrecy Tuesday, while acknowledging the idea of a transparency-focused group meeting privately was "perhaps a paradox."

"The reason that we did that was because we thought it would be most productive to give this group the opportunity to discuss what are complicated issues and what are sensitive issues in the fullest of candor, without concern for the fact that the discussions might immediately be the subject of a newspaper story," Clements said. "And I think that worked fairly well and I think there was a great deal of opportunity for public input."