Mass. to mull higher penalties for ethics lapses

Gov. Deval Patrick is backing sweeping changes to Massachusetts' ethics laws, including dramatically increasing prison time for bribery and giving the attorney general wiretapping authority in corruption probes.

 

The changes were recommended by a panel formed by Patrick after the October arrest of state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson on bribery charges. The governor said he planned to file the panel's recommendations as a bill on Wednesday.

 

Patrick said an increased public focus on ethics questions at the State House — including allegations of influence-peddling involving a friend of the House Speaker — created the right environment to propose changes to the laws, some of which have been untouched since the 1960s.

 

"When a few people behave outside the rules, outside the ethics, it casts a cloud. The time was right," Patrick told reporters Tuesday.

 

The recommendations would give the Secretary of State subpoena powers on campaign lobbying issues and allow the Attorney General to convene special statewide public corruption grand juries. The plan also includes dramatic increases in penalties for violations of ethics laws.

 

Another key part of the plan would give the state attorney general the authority to record conversations in public corruption cases. Under existing law, conversations can be recorded by state law enforcement agencies only in cases involving organized crime.

 

The ethics panel was led by Patrick's chief legal counsel, Ben Clements. He said the goal was not just to toughen penalties but also to create better communications between different oversight agencies.

 

The changes would allow the State Ethics Commission to share information with the state Inspector General, Attorney General, Secretary of State and Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

 

House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who faces re-election to his post as speaker on Wednesday, said House lawmakers need time to review the governor's proposal.

 

DiMasi cautioned that the Legislature already faces huge challenges in the new session grappling with the state's plummeting revenues and transportation needs.

 

"I believe some common sense ethics reforms should be considered," DiMasi said in a statement. "Members of the House will thoroughly review the recommendations from the governor's task force and we will seriously consider any necessary changes in the new term."

 

Under the proposal, the maximum punishment for bribery would jump up to $100,000 and 10 years in prison, from the current penalty of $5,000 and three years.

 

Anyone caught violating the state's conflict of interest laws would face civil fines of as much as $10,000, up from the current penalty of $2,000.

 

An aide to state Sen. Therese Murray, who is expected to be elected to her first full term as Senate president on Wednesday, said senators will give Patrick's plan "full consideration."

 

"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," said Murray spokesman David Falcone.

 

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