Ethics panel calls for tougher political corruption penalties

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Governor Patrick is vowing ethics reform on Beacon Hill. A panel he established is recommending tougher penalties for political corruption. It comes amid some high profile cases.


Gov. Deval Patrick: “As you all know, several recent charges of illegal or unethical conduct by public officials have rocked the State House. The actions of a few have cast a cloud over all.”


Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is referring to the October arrest of state senator Dianne Wilkerson on bribery charges -- which came at the same time house speaker Sal DiMasi was being investigated in an influence peddling case and senator James Marzilli was facing charges of sexually harassing women in Lowell.


Deval Patrick: No one can legislate morality -- we all know that. But we can assure ourselves and the public that the consequences for breeching the public trust will be serious, swift and certain.


Patrick is filing a bill Wednesday based on the recommendations of his recently created ethics task force that task force chairman Ben Clements, the governor’s legal counsel says will make Massachusetts among the top leaders in the country in oversight of government ethics including a significant increase in prison time and fines for bribery.


The attorney general would have wiretapping power under the recommendations and the secretary of state would have subpoena power.


Ben Clements/Gov's legal counsel: We also recommend new criminal penalties for violations of the standards of conduct contained within the conflict of interest law where the violations are carried out with fraudulent intent.


So what if these recommendations had been in place months ago? How might things be different here on Beacon Hill? Would stricter laws have prevented some of the charges that have been leveled against DiMasi, Wilkerson and Marzilli.


Task force member Pam Wilmot from the government watchdog group common cause goes a step further saying if the recommendations had been in place months ago, the case against DiMasi's associate Richard Vitale would be clearer. Vitale is accused of using his friendship with DiMasi to shape legislation.


Pam Wilmot: It actually does address that issue of some of this grey area that in fact Vitale is using that I was just strategizing or I didn't meet the threshold that you have to do to register as a lobbyist -- that's all cleared up by the statute. 46:18


Asked for his reaction to the recommendations, house speaker DiMasi issued a statement which says in part:


“I believe some common sense ethics reforms should be considered. The members of the House will thoroughly review the recommendations and will seriously consider any necessary changes in the new term.”


Ben Clement: Changes that will make MA among the very top leaders in the country as far as oversight of government ethics and lobbying.


Date: 1/7/2009 12:00:00 AM