Patrick’s narrow ethics focus

Gov. Deval Patrick's task force on public integrity today unveiled legislation to toughen the state's ethics and lobbying laws, but it shied away from broader, more radical measures to address why corruption always seems to blossom in Massachusetts.

Patrick said no one can legislate morality, but he said his legislation would insure that the "currency of democracy is not money, but integrity and participation."

One problem is that democracy is almost nonexistent in Massachusetts. In the November election, Massachusetts had the lowest percentage of contested legislative seats in the nation. Democrats now control nearly every office at the state and federal levels and Republican representation in the House fell to an all-time low in November.

Patrick, a Democrat himself, said the one-party dominance was not a contributing factor to corruption on Beacon Hill. "I don't think that's it at all," he said.

But other members of his task force felt there might be a connection. Pam Wilmont, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts, said she felt the political culture on Beacon Hill engendered by one-party rule and the lack of choice at the polls for voters may be reasons why corruption can sometimes flourish. "Competition has a lot to do with it," she said.

The task force itself took no position on one-party rule, although it did raise the issue in suggesting public financing of elections may be worth investigating in order to promote more political competition. "Some believe that Massachusetts has the least competitive legislative elections in the nation, and that lack of competitiveness and accountability is the root cause of ethics problems confronting state government," the task force report said.

Patrick, who plans to file his ethics legislation tomorrow, said he foresaw no problem in pushing his bill through the scandal-plagued Legislature. He urged lawmakers to pass the bill within 30 days, but made no guarantees that would happen.

The 13-member task force, headed by Patrick's chief legal counsel, Ben Clements, focused most of its attention on closing loopholes in existing laws, significantly increasing penalties for violations, and giving the State Ethics Commission, the secretary of state, and the attorney general more power to do their jobs.

For example, the proposed bill would increase the criminal penalty for bribery from its current maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine and as much as three years in jail to a fine of as much as $100,000 and 10 years in jail. The bill expands the definition of lobbying to include strategizing, preparing and planning for the purpose of influencing legislative or executive policy. The bill also gives both the Ethics Commission and the Secretary of State rule-making authority to implement the state's ethics and lobbying laws. For details, check out the report.

Another key change proposed by the task force would make it a crime to give anything of value to an official "for or because of an employee's official position." Current state law bars gifts greater than $50 but only if there is a direct link between the gift and a specific official act of the official. The requirement of a direct link has made past corruption investigations difficult if not impossible.

Joseph Savage, a former federal prosecutor and a member of the governor's task force, said the proposed change would close a major loophole in existing law.

While the task force focused most of its attention on the nuts and bolts of law enforcement, it suggested a number of other issues in the second half of its report that would be worth investigating. For example, it suggested the creation of a single public integrity office might improve and streamline enforcement of the state's ethics and lobbying laws. Currently, enforcement is spread across three agencies — the State Ethics Commission, the secretary of state's office, and the attorney general's office.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The task force also raised the possibility of eliminating the need for municipalities to seek legislative approval for changes in the way they operate. The task force's report said home rule petitions "have become the currency for political trade-offs and deal-making on Beacon Hill." Of 720 bills enacted since Patrick took office on Jan. 4, 2007, the task force said 315, or 44 percent, were home rule petitions.

Other issues raised by the task force included making the Legislature subject to the state's Open Meeting Law, making more information about state budgets available online, and revamping the state's Public Records Law to make the inner workings of government more transparent. CommonWealth highlighted the weaknesses of the Public Records Law in the cover story in its fall issue.