Defining conflicts for lawmakers

State Sen. Steven Tolman put off his resignation from the Senate until the end of today so he could beat back any attempts to water down the casino bill and throw his vote behind the passage. Incoming AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman, whose group is among the strongest supporters of casinos in the state, was pleased.

State Sen. Robert Hedlund introduced an amendment that could effectively lift the 28-year ban on happy hours and reduced price drinks for local establishments as a way to help them compete in some small ways with casinos that offer gamblers free drinks. Restaurateur Bob Hedlund, co-owner of Four Square restaurant in Weymouth Landing, will be sending a thank you card.

It’s fair to wonder exactly what the state’s ethics laws mean when two men, from opposite sides of the partisan aisle, who have clearly vested interests in the outcome of legislation use their influence and their votes to make laws that may or may not have widespread benefits but have certain bonuses for them.

These are just the latest examples of the conflict in the state’s conflict of interest law. Earlier this week, the Globe had a story about state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, the co-chairman of the redistricting committee, facing a dilemma over how to draw the new congressional map. Part of the struggle, the Globe’s story points out, is Rosenberg co-owns a condo in Boston with US Rep. John Olver, whose western Mass. district is one most people think should be consolidated with US. Rep. Richard Neal’s.

The Globe story points out that Rosenberg disclosed the partnership on his Statement of Financial Interest form filed with the Ethics Commission, though you’d be hard-pressed to know that since the commission redacted the address and no name of his co-owner is reported.

“It’s absurd,’’ Rosenberg, who’s also been rumored to have his eye on the Olver seat should his mentor step down, told the Globe. “How does co-owning a flat become a conflict of interest?’’

But that is not exactly what the statute says. It says officials are supposed to file a disclosure when they become entangled in some relationship with a family member, business associate, or client where a “reasonable person” may see the appearance of a conflict. Note the words “reasonable” and “appearance,” both key, but vague, parts of the law.

Disclosure records, which lawmakers can file with the clerk of their respective legislative branch or with the Ethics Commission, are not posted by the state online. Instead, the filings are kept on paper in three-ring binders in a byzantine and mind-numbing system that takes hours to navigate.

State Sen. Richard Ross, who owns a family funeral business in Wrentham, says he’s constantly being told by colleagues he cannot vote on anything to do with his industry, however tangential. But Ross says the 32 lawyers with outside work in the Legislature are constantly crafting laws that impact their profession, crowding around the rostrum during debate to offer changes and insight.

“They tell me they are uniquely positioned through their knowledge and experience,” Ross said. “Why, then, aren’t I?”

It is an ongoing dilemma, one that we raised at CommonWealth two years ago. The state’s ethics law says a conflict is avoided once a lawmaker reveals the potential conflict. That, then, frees them to participate as long as they don’t personally benefit.

“The statute’s intended to create a ‘safe harbor,’” Deirdre Roney, general counsel for the Ethics Commission told CommonWealth at the time. “Once you’ve made the disclosure, then under the statute it’s unreasonable to determine there’s an appearance of conflict.”

So the fact that 56 lawmakers have spouses on the public payroll, as we reported last week, does not prevent them from voting on pension, health, collective bargaining or budget issues as long as they report the issue somewhere.

Reading the Ethics Commission’s annual findings and releases, you can see a slew of local officials fined or reprimanded for violating conflicts of interest laws in hiring and voting. But there have been few cases – none in recent memory – where a legislator is taken to task for perceived conflicts.

It may be time to revisit the ethics laws yet again and either rewrite them – or just kill them.

                                                                                                       –JACK SULLIVAN 


Occupy Boston protesters have raised more than $20,000 in donations, a demonstration of the support the effort is garnering and the power of the internet.

The Phoenix’s Chris Faraone visits five occupied cities in five days.

Joan Vennochi says the Kennedys would approve of the protests taking place on the parkland named for family matriarch Rose Kennedy, and she rips Mayor Tom Menino, whose police force moved in earlier this week to arrest more than 100 demonstrators, for “caring more about grass than grassroots activists.”


The casino bill giveth, the casino bill taketh away: The Senate yesterday approved an amendment that would provide funding for some school districts that get a lower contribution from the state than poorer communities. Meanwhile, senators defeated a measure to remove a set-aside provision in the casino bill that would pay for health and pensions benefits for Suffolk Downs employees.

The state attorney general’s office, which last year was charged with overseeing and enforcing the Open Meeting Law, has begun posting its determinations on line. Via the Patriot Ledger.

In an editorial, the Lowell Sun joins the chorus of newspapers condemning Gov. Deval Patrick’s stance on Secure Communities. “For every wonderful story about illegal immigrants achieving the American Dream, there are dozens here illegally causing havoc,” the paper says.

Attorney General Martha Coakley and state lawmakers say that they will continue to pressure the federal government on fishing limits and heavy fines imposed on the fishing industry for violating those limits.

State officials look to Cape residents for opinions on how NStar handled Tropical Storm Irene in the region.


An audit of 12 random accounts at the Lynn retirement system finds a combined $42,000 in overpayments in three of them. One of the accounts belong to former mayor Edward Clancy, the Lynn Item reports.

One Lowell, a nonprofit agency that helps immigrants, announced it is closing, the Lowell Sun reports.

A Swampscott selectman raises the idea of hiring a lobbyist to pursue state and federal aid for the town, saying,  “I don’t think we get the representation we deserve.”

Attleboro mayoral hopefuls square off, with the mayor’s challenger questioning why all the city’s urban renewal deals go to the same developer.

Fitchburg mayor Lisa Wong and her challenger, Joseph Solomito, square off in a tense debate.


Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, votes to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, Governing reports.

A new national poll finds increasing opposition to the death penalty.

Picking the wrong fight: Republicans go after FEMA again.

A disabled Naval officer from Connecticut files a lawsuit challenging the legality of the federal government’s prohibition on same-sex marriage.


State Rep. Tom Conroy, who has more miles on his walking shoes than dollars in his campaign chest, tells Greater Boston he’s still the Democrats’ best chance to beat Sen. Scott Brown.

The Fix is in: Washington Post political analysts Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake analyze how Herman Cain can win. Cain vaults to the top of two new national polls, but the increased visibility is generating increased scrutiny of his 9-9-9 tax plan.

Things that make you go hmmm: Somehow a 2002 speech by former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole found its way into a website message from US Sen. Scott Brown…verbatim.

Elizabeth Warren has narrowed the field, not cleared it, David Bernstein argues.

Karl Rove sees political liabilities in Democrats’ attempts to court the Occupy movement.


Banks operating in Cleveland are paying to have foreclosed homes torn down rather than try to maintain them.

Home heating oil prices are projected to hit record highs this winter.

Small business owners are more optimistic today than any time in the past six months, according to a national poll.

Massachusetts sees a year-over-year decline in venture capital deals, while New York and California are on the upswing.

Harvard economist Martin Feldstein has a prescription for the nation’s ailing housing market.


Brockton High School is testing a new electronic system in which visitors entering the building have their drivers license scanned by a machine that then checks it against sex offender registries in all 50 states as well as names of people school officials have banned from entering, such as a parent with a restraining order or recently freed from jail.


Paul Levy says the silence is deafening over the Blue Cross-Partners HealthCare deal.


The T is launching a campaign asking riders to show a little kindness and courtesy to their fellow passengers.

Advocates push for commuter rail service to Foxborough.


A lawsuit filed by whistle-blowers alleges that State Street Corp. defrauded pension funds across the country of $400 million a year over the course of a decade.

A class-action lawsuit against Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins alleges a $30 medical processing fee and a $5 copay he charges inmates at the Middleton Jail for infirmary visits is illegal, the Salem News reports.

Cambridge police and Harvard professor S. Allen Counter settle a civil rights lawsuit that Counter filed after he was arrested in 2006 after a domestic dispute.

US Rep. William Keating files a pair of bills that would instruct the Treasury to pay $8.5 million to the families of Whitey Bulger’s alleged victims. The families had previously been awarded compensation in civil lawsuits, but had those awards overturned by a federal appeals court.

Former Congressional candidate Jeff Perry pens a letter to the Herald’s editor, criticizing the Globe’s handling of Bulger’s Icelandic tipster.