The shadow over ethics reform

The elbows came flying out, with everyone rushing to take credit for the ethics reform bill that emerged from the State House this week. And it is, by all accounts, one of the most sweeping changes in the state's ethics laws in decades.

The new requirements widen the scope of what lobbyists can and can't do — and redefine who is and who isn't a lobbyist. They also expand the investigative and subpoena powers of the Ethics Commission; ban all gifts to legislators; increase penalties for violations and late filings; and impose a one-year ban on executive branch employees from lobbying after they leave state service, similar to the ban for legislative employees.

Few, if any, will argue the reforms aren't necessary, albeit belated, given the forced resignations and indictments of the past three speakers and the pending criminal trial of former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, although many wonder if the change train would have ever left the station if not for the arrests, rather than the actions, of the disgraced lawmakers. Gov. Deval Patrick acknowledged the cloud hanging over Beacon Hill rightfully incited the public's outrage, which prompted the changes.

"The sad truth is the public’s confidence in Beacon Hill has been shaken, in some respects shattered," Patrick said in announcing he would sign the ethics law.

But all the changes will do little to improve our ranking in a survey by the Center for Public Integrity, which just released its biannual "States of Disclosure" and gave Massachusetts a low-C, with 73 of a possible 100 points based on more than 40 measures of public access to legislators' financial data. The grade, which is the same as in 2006, ranks us 17th, but it is a drop from 13th because of improvements made by other states. Most notably, the perennially ethics-challenged state of Louisiana vaulted to first place, with 94.5 points.

And the changes did nothing to make it easier for ordinary citizens, credited with being the force behind changing the culture at the State House, to get a look at financial disclosure statements. And we remain one of only four states that notifies the official that someone is peeking at their mandated filings.

State Rep. Jennifer Callahan said the Legislature has to "stop congratulating ourselves," noting it was forced by public outrage to pass meaningful reforms. The Sutton Democrat noted what's not in the new law, including the Legislature's continued exemption from the open meeting law, which she said could blow out some of the stale air under the Golden Dome.

"I'm not alone," Callahan told her colleagues. "I might be the only one who speaks about this."

Few of the changes in the new law would alter our Center for Public Integrity ranking, despite the overwhelming cry from vox populi for reform. One area the survey gives Massachusetts credit is stretching it a bit. The survey asks a convoluted question about public access: "In-person appearance not required to obtain filings?"

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.

According to the survey, only Maryland requires a personal appearance to review and copy the disclosure forms. What is misleading is many of the other states have them available online, but in Massachusetts, the only way around going to Room 619 in the McCormack Building is to mail or fax the inquiry form along with a clear photocopy of your drivers license and a check for $1 for each filing you request. And then they'll mail it back to you, so instant knowledge is out of the question.

And don't think you can sneak a peek at the form while maintaining anonymity. The Ethics Commission still notifies the public official the identities of who asked for their information. Aside from the Bay State, only New York, Virginia, and Wisconsin notify officials of the reviewers' identities. The forwarding of this information can be intimidating process for someone who merely wants to know what their elected official is up to, or potential challengers who may be unsure if they want to get in a race without being fearful of recriminations.

So while everyone on Beacon Hill is in danger of shoulder strain from patting themselves on the back, there's still some work to do to answer the call of the public.