An ethics dilemma: Do as I do or do as I say?

What would be the official reaction if someone had a court date for a speeding ticket but showed up a couple days later, maybe as much as three weeks after the appointed appearance?

There would certainly be a bench warrant issued for the tardy defendant, even though speeding is a minor infraction in the grand scope of criminality, and it’s likely the judge or magistrate would fine the heavy-footed offender over and above the speeding ticket penalty, maybe even threaten some jail time for disrespecting the judicial system.

Yet in the same scope, scores of elected and appointed state and county officials file their mandated financial interest statements to the State Ethics Commission after the deadline every year with just a fraction of those late filers being penalized within the parameters of the law.

According to the ethics commission, 137 elected and appointed state and county officials filed their 2008 Statements of Financial Interest anywhere from three days to three months after the statutory deadline. Among appointed officials, at least 17 judges, clerk-magistrates, assistant court clerks, and assistant district attorneys sent in their forms after the May 1 deadline. Eight current state representatives filed their statements after the deadline — May 26 for elected officials — and former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, under indictment for taking bribes, did not file any form for 2008.

But so far, none of the tardy offenders have been fined and, if form holds from prior years, it’s unlikely more than a handful will be dunned with penalties that range from $50 for being a day late to $2,000 for failing to file.

“We give people a lot of leeway to comply,” says Deirdre Roney, general counsel for the ethics commission.

The late filers get more than leeway when it comes to the most draconian penalty on the books; they get a free pass. The ethics law requires the state withhold the pay from anyone who does not file his or her statements by the deadlines. Roney said no one has ever been subjected to the harsh penalty since the law was passed in 1978.

“It’s a good cudgel,” she says. “We saw the [statute] a few years back and said, ‘Let’s call this to people’s attention.’ But for us to impose it as a penalty, we’d have to go through our show cause process, we believe.”

It’s also unclear who is subject to the pay penalty.

“No public employee shall be allowed to continue in his duties or to receive compensation from public funds unless he has filed a statement of financial interests with the commission as required by this chapter,” according to the state ethics law.

But the law defines “public employee” as appointed officials and defines elected officeholders as “public officials.” That little semantic sleight-of-hand may exempt lawmakers from losing any pay should they file late.

The Statements of Financial Interest are supposed to be filed every year by nearly 5,000 state and county employees, including state lawmakers, elected county officials, constitutional officers, cabinet members, the Governor’s Council, and thousands of state workers identified as having a hand in policymaking decisions. The forms, which CommonWealth has begun to post online in our new Full Disclosure project, are required to be filed with the ethics commission by May 1 for appointed officials and former elected officials who left office in the last year and by the last Tuesday in May for current elected officials.

But according to records, 1,128 officials — an average of 125 each year — have filed their forms late since 2001, the oldest records available, with just a fraction facing any penalty. And only once, in 2002, has any official been fined the maximum $2,000.

According to the commission’s annual reports, 123 officials missed the deadline for 2007, but only nine were fined a total of $1,700. The highest year for penalties was for 2005, when 39 of the 139 late filers were fined a total of $4,750. In 2001, only five of the 130 late filers were fined an undisclosed amount.

Retired Judge E. George Daher, former executive director of the ethics commission, said the majority of filers get their statements in on time.

“My experience was once you send them a dunning letter, they respond,” Daher said. “Some left government service, some die, some get indicted. . . I don’t know if the penalties need to be tougher, a lot of time it’s an oversight.” But Daher admitted he doesn’t recall a fine heavier than a couple hundred dollars being levied, even for those six months late or more.

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.

Governor’s Councilor Marilyn Devaney filed her 2008 statement on June 19, more than three weeks after the deadline, and then filed an amended return on July 28. Devaney said she received a letter telling her she could be fined when she was late but nothing about being removed from the payroll. Devaney, who does not file electronically, unlike 85 percent of those who must submit financial statements, said she has no excuse for being “inadvertently late” but doesn’t think it’s a big issue.

“It isn’t because I’m trying to count my money and that’s why I was late,” Devaney says. “I take full responsibility for it being late. That won’t happen again, I assure you.”