Patrick targets ethics lapses

 

Following the recommendations of a 12-member panel formed after a series of scandals roiled the State House, Patrick proposed giving subpoena power to the secretary of state's office and wiretapping authority to the state attorney general. And he would make it easier for the attorney general to win public corruption convictions.

 

"No one can legislate morality, we all know that," Patrick said at a news conference. "But we can assure ourselves and the public that the consequences for breaching the public trust will be serious, swift, and certain."

 

Patrick said he plans to file a bill today, the first day of a new legislative session, giving the issue a prominent place in the public debate. Patrick urged lawmakers to act within 30 days and said he was optimistic the measure would be approved.

 

The governor formed the task force in November after state Senator Dianne Wilkerson was arrested on federal bribery charges. In addition, a series of Globe stories sparked investigations by state and federal agencies into large payments made to friends and business associates of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. One of those friends - Richard Vitale, the speaker's longtime accountant and former campaign treasurer - was indicted last month on charges of violating lobbying and campaign laws.

 

"Several recent charges of illegal or unethical conduct by public officials have rocked the State House," said Patrick. "People who work in state government are overwhelmingly honest, fair, and aboveboard. The actions of a few have cast a cloud over all."

 

For all its sweep, many of the measures proposed also were intended to plug gaps in existing laws, such as the lack of subpoena power for the secretary of state, who is responsible for regulating lobbyists. Critics have said the loopholes have prevented the agency from aggressively enforcing lobbying disclosure laws.

 

Regulators hailed the proposed reforms, calling them important first steps in restoring public confidence in government.

 

"I never thought I'd see this day," said Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, who called the recommendations historic and extraordinary. If this passes, I think it will be the most significant legislation since I've been inspector general by far."

 

Secretary of State William F. Galvin called the measure "a good faith effort on the part of the governor to fight public corruption and to increase transparency so that average citizens can find out who is paying to influence government decisions and why."

 

Had the recommendations been law last year, Galvin said, he would not have had to spend months trying to force Vitale to explain his involvement with an association of ticket brokers, which led Attorney General Martha Coakley to secure an indictment against him.

 

Galvin also spent several months trying to get information about payments made by Burlington software company Cognos ULC to lobbyist and DiMasi friend Richard McDonough and to DiMasi's law associate, Steven Topazio.

 

"If I had the subpoena and enforcement power, I would have been able to get answers immediately," said Galvin, "instead of having to go through this protracted extraction of information that was never really complete. "

 

Galvin said he has filed similar legislation annually, but it has always died in committee.

 

"The big question is what will happen to it," he said.

 

Whether the Legislature will approve the proposal was unclear yesterday. Senate President Therese Murray was unavailable for comment. Her spokesman, David Falcone, said in an e-mail: "The Senate intends to give the plan full consideration in the new legislative session. Many of the measures are already in place in the Senate's ethics training for new members, and we remain open to any meaningful suggestions."

 

DiMasi issued a terse statement that said "some common sense ethics reforms should be considered," but suggested passing the bill was not a top priority.

 

"Massachusetts faces serious challenges in the coming year - from finding ways to balance our budget amid a crushing fiscal crisis to reforming our transportation system to make it fairer for all," he said. "The best way to maintain and build upon the public's trust is by tackling these problems directly, leveling with people, and engaging them in our solutions."

 

One state official said he had already heard from defense lawyers, who said that giving the attorney general wiretapping power would go too far. Several lawyers contacted by the Globe declined to comment.

 

In its 60-page report, the task force said that, while state laws are "generally strong and broad," there are significant gaps in the areas of enforcement, penalties, and education.

 

It recommended increasing fines for violating the state's conflict-of-interest law from $2,000 to $10,000, extending from three to five years the time the Ethics Commission has to investigate complaints, giving the commission the authority to enforce summonses without having to go to court, and prohibiting most gifts to public officials. It would eliminate the current requirement that, to prove a violation, the commission must show that a public official did something in exchange for a gift.

 

The bill would also crack down on lobbyists who fail to register with the secretary of state and would require them to file even if they work as a lobbyist for only a few hours a week.

 

In addition, the legislation would broaden the definition of lobbying to include "strategizing" or "planning." Vitale had refused to report $60,000 he received from the ticket brokers group, saying he was a "strategist," not a lobbyist. He also said he had not worked long enough on legislative issues to meet the minimum lobbying threshold.

 

Under the proposal, the penalty for a bribery conviction, last changed in 1962, would go from a $5,000 fine or three years in prison - the lowest of all 50 states - to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. 

 

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