Ethics task force hears nuts-and-bolts ideas

Some interesting nuts-and-bolts ideas surfaced at today's public hearing of the governor's task force on public integrity, but no radical measures were proposed to change the way business is done on Beacon Hill.

Representative Jennifer M. Callahan, a Democrat from Sutton, urged the task force to call for a ban on lobbyist contributions to lawmakers, regular ethics training sessions for state officials, and extending the state's open meeting law to any gathering, including a caucus, where a quorum of legislators is present. "We need to take the legislative process out of the backroom," she said.

The nuts-and-bolts suggestions came from workers in the ethics trenches. They called for tweaking existing laws to increase embarrassingly low fines or to close gaping loopholes in existing ethics laws.

One big hurdle for any bribery case in Massachusetts is the so-called Scaccia decision, named for Rep. Angelo Scaccia of Canton. Scaccia let insurance and tobacco lobbyists pay for hundreds of dollars of meals and golf outings for himself and his son in the early 1990s, but was ultimately found not guilty of violating the state's so-called gratuity statute because prosecutors could not prove that the gifts were linked to any specific act.

Karen L. Nober, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said Massachusetts is the only state that requires a link between a gift and a specific action taken by an official. She said the law should be changed so the direct link is not required.

John Grossman, who currently works as an undersecretary of public safety in the Patrick administration but previously worked on public corruption cases at the attorney general's office, said he felt the law should be changed to prohibit "significant" gifts given to an official because of that official's position. The current threshold requirement for prohibited gifts is $50, but Grossman said the task force might want to tinker with that as well.

Both Grossman and Nober said penalties for accepting bribes and violating ethics laws need to be dramatically increased. Grossman said the current state penalty for bribery is three years in jail and/or a $5,000 fine. The current maximum Ethics Commission fine is $2,000, which Nober said was last increased in 1982. Nober said the fine should be increased to at least $10,000. Grossman called the current Ethics Commission fines "barely a deterrent" and said the bribery penalty "sends a deplorable message about our priorities."

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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.

Grossman also raised an interesting issue about audio recordings by law enforcement officials of the type used to ensnare former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, who federal prosecutors allege accepted bribes for help in securing a liquor license. Grossman said federal law allows these types of undercover recordings where only one party consents, while Massachusetts law allows them only in cases involving organized crime. Grossman urged the task force to recommend changing the law to give state prosecutors more latitude, saying recordings are badly needed "in this day of CSI show-me juries."

The task force is headed by Gov. Patrick's legal counsel, Ben Clements. It is expected to make recommendations to the governor in less than a month. Clements encouraged the public to submit testimony to the task force through its website, www.mass.gov/governor/publicintegrity.