4 in 10 think corruption is widespread in Legislature

New MassINC poll finds recent scandals have taken toll on Beacon Hill

The prevailing view among Massachusetts voters is that corruption on Beacon Hill is limited to a few isolated incidents, but nearly 4 in 10 voters think the problem is widespread, according to a survey by the MassINC Polling Group.

The survey found 52 percent of voters believe corruption is limited to a few isolated incidents and 50 percent of those surveyed place the blame for those incidents on individual lawmakers. But a surprisingly high number of voters – 39 percent – say corruption is widespread and 40 percent say the cause is the system on Beacon Hill rather than individual lawmakers.

“I think it reflects overall faith in the system but a real concern about (their) representation,” says Suffolk Assistant Professor Rachel V. Cobb, the school’s chair of government. “The thinking goes, if there were more honest people, these problems would be reduced.”

The poll of 500 Massachusetts residents, 440 of them voters, was conducted last week as part of a quarterly tracking survey on a variety of issues. The most recent survey added two questions asking respondents how common they think corruption is among legislators and what they think is the main cause of corruption in state government. The poll of voters has a margin of error of 4.7 percent.

The polling followed the conviction of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi on federal charges of receiving kickbacks. DiMasi is the third consecutive House speaker to be convicted of criminal charges. In addition, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson pled guilty last year to accepting bribes and other former legislators have been accused or convicted of various charges ranging from driving under the influence to misusing campaign funds to pension abuse.

The probation department scandal, in which a number of lawmakers were cited in a damning report for padding the payroll with friends, relatives, and financial supporters, also cast a dark shadow over the Legislature.

Cobb says she falls into the category of believing corruption is isolated and thinks the drumbeat of media stories combined with the popularity of talk radio has had a huge impact on public perception. But she says legislative leaders should take heed of the results.

“If I were a legislative leader, I’d use these numbers to try not so much get the house in order as much as alter the public perception,” she says. “There have been too many scandals recently for us to say there are not problems.”

Among registered voters, 42 percent of those who are unenrolled say corruption is widespread in the Legislature. The corresponding numbers for Republicans and Democrats were 41 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Conversely, unenrolled voters also had the highest rate in saying corruption is nonexistent on Beacon Hill, with 6 percent agreeing with the statement. Just 1 percent of Democrats and Republicans believed corruption didn’t exist.

The biggest disparity appears to be in education and income. The higher the degree and salary, the more likely voters believe corruption is limited to a few incidents. Among those making more than $150,000, 65 percent think corruption is limited while just 39 percent of those making less than $25,000 think only a few people are corrupt.

Among those voters with just a high school degree or less, 46 percent think corruption is widespread while just 24 percent of those with advanced degrees think similarly. When it comes to the cause, only those with some college education but no degree blame the system more than the members by a 48-44 margin.

“There seems to be a direct relationship between income and education in that your belief in the widespread corruption declines the more money you make and the more educated you are,” says Stephen Crosby, dean of the John W. McCormack School at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and a former gubernatorial aide. “I suppose with education and wealth goes some degree of being able to discriminate a little more and not just say a pox on all their houses.”

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

Crosby also says the constant “rat-a-tat of real transgressions” by government officials – both elected and appointed, in and out of the state – has influenced many voters to view their leaders with skepticism. While the poll questions focused on the Legislature, Crosby says lawmakers are becoming the generic whipping boy, albeit with reason.

“People probably don’t discriminate. They just see these repeated stories,” says Crosby. “You could probably substitute ‘elected officials’ for ‘Legislature’ and the numbers probably wouldn’t change much.”