Subpoenas, wiretaps proposed for state ethics reform

A governor's task force has recommended a sweeping overhaul of the state's lobbying and ethics laws, proposing a steep increase in penalties and a broad expansion of enforcement and investigative tools.


The report suggests giving subpoena power to the office of the secretary of state, wiretapping authority to the attorney general, and significantly increasing the scope of the State Ethics Commission and giving it more teeth. The task force also proposed a change to the state conflict of interest law that would give the attorney general more latitude to prosecute corrupt officials.


At a press conference this afternoon, Governor Deval Patrick said he plans to file the reform bill on Wednesday, the first day of a new legislative session. Patrick urged lawmakers to act within 30 days and said he was optimistic that the measure would pass.


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


Massachusetts Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan hailed the proposals as "extraordinary" after the press conference.


"I never thought I'd see this day," Sullivan said. "If this passes, I think it will be the most significant legislation since I've been inspector general by far."


The governor formed the 12-member task force in November after a major corruption scandal and a series of ethics controversies roiled the State House. Former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson was arrested on federal bribery charges. A series of Globe stories sparked investigations by several 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 campaign treasurer -- was indicted on charges of violating lobbying and campaign finance laws.


In a statement, DiMasi downplayed the importance of ethics reform, saying that the state faced serious challenges in the coming year that included balancing the budget amid a fiscal crisis and reforming the transportation system.


"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," DiMasi said. "In the process, I believe some common sense ethics reforms should be considered. The 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.”


Date: 1/6/2009 12:00:00 AM