Lawmakers eat away at transparency

Chinese takeout exposes stubborn public record stand

WE’RE PRETTY SURE it’s not what our friends at State House News Service had in mind when they dubbed their weekly podcast “State House Takeout.” And if lawmakers haven’t budged on the issue yet, it’s not clear that an exposé on a tray or two — or even what appears to be considerably more than that — of taxpayer-funded General Gau chicken or egg rolls will get them to suddenly embrace good-government reforms. But give the Boston Herald credit for continuing to stir the pot on the Legislature’s stubborn refusal to consider ending its exemption from the state’s public records law.

The Herald’s run at the issue came through a circuitous path that started in the state comptroller’s office and ended five miles and a tunnel-trip away at Hong Kong Dragon, a Chinese restaurant that happens to be in House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s hometown of Winthrop.

Massachusetts is one of just four states whose Legislature is exempt from public records laws — Minnesota, Iowa, and Oklahoma round out the ignoble quartet — and it is the only state where the Legislature, governor’s office, and judiciary all claim such exemption. The Herald was able to obtain information on purchases made using a House credit card from the state comptroller, who is not exempt from the public records law. Among the $49,622 spent on the card in the 2019 fiscal year that just ended, the paper zeroed in on the largest single purchase — $4,745 for a takeout order from Hong Kong Dragon that fed lawmakers on April 22 as they started deliberations on the annual state budget. The speaker’s office declined to say what role DeLeo plays in purchases using the credit card.

It hardly seems like the most compelling example of the danger of walling off the public from the inner doings of the Legislature. Shining a light on how legislation gets shaped, or killed, is more the sort of thing advocates cite in arguing for a change in the public records law. On the other hand, maybe the fact that the paper had to resort to a work-around to get information on a Chinese takeout order underscores the absurdity of the Legislature’s secretive ways.

The Herald pummeling doesn’t stop with egg roll-gate. The paper uses the example to call out the Legislature’s new interest in helping strengthen the shaky state of journalism. A bill cosponsored by Sen. Brendan Crighton and Rep. Lori Ehrlich would establish a state commission to examine the plight of communities “underserved by local journalism.”

A separate story suggests there’s more than a little hypocrisy in legislators looking to boost the press and its ability to hold government accountable while shielding themselves from that very scrutiny. Ehrlich did not respond to an inquiry from the paper, while Crighton said he opposes efforts to end the Legislature’s public records exemption. “The system is working well,” he says.

The irony of the journalism commission proposal paired with the Legislature’s stand on public records was a fat meatball over the middle of the plate for Mary Connaughton, director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute. “How can we keep them honest if they keep us in the dark?” she asks in a column accompanying the articles.