Patrick to enter ethics bill

With ethics and influence peddling probes continuing on several fronts at the Statehouse, the governor yesterday called for quick action by the Legislature on a new set of laws he is proposing to tighten lobbying rules, toughen criminal penalties for public bribery and give state investigators new wiretapping power for use in public corruption investigations.

The recommendations follow a 60-day study from a blue ribbon ethics and lobbying reform commission set up by Gov. Deval L. Patrick shortly after the FBI arrested former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson for allegedly accepting cash payments in exchange for efforts to secure a liquor license for a planned Boston nightclub.

That arrest came as the secretary of state, the state Ethics Commission, FBI and attorney general also have been investigating a series of alleged lobbying irregularities involving political associates of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, commissions on state contracts and payments lobbyists allegedly made in exchange for passage of legislation.

Mr. Patrick said the reforms were long overdue and urgently needed, calling on the Legislature to pass the series of reforms within the next 30 days.

“Several recent charges of illegal or unethical conduct by public officials have rocked the Statehouse,” the governor said. “The actions of a few have cast a cloud over all.”

He said “swift movement on this legislation will show how serious we are about restoring our citizens’ confidence in their government.”

Mr. Patrick said the commission found numerous gaps and weaknesses in the state’s ability to enforce violations of ethics and lobbying laws and that many of the current penalties were outdated, ineffective and among the weakest in the country.

“Their hard work helps affirm the principle that the currency of democracy is not money but rather integrity and participation,” the governor said in thanking the commission for its work.

Mr. DiMasi, who is believed to have been briefed on the governor’s proposal in advance, said they will be considered, but he made no commitment to support any of the proposals.

“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. In the process, I believe some common sense ethics reforms should be considered,” Mr. DiMasi said in a prepared statement.

The legislation the governor will file today would increase the penalty for bribery of a public official to $100,000 and up to 10 years in prison. The current penalty is up to $5,000 and three years in prison.

Maximum penalties for criminal violations of state conflict-of-interest laws would go up from the current $3,000 and three years in prison, to $10,000 and five years in prison, while civil infractions of the conflict law would go up from $2,000 per violation to $10,000, and provide for an additional civil penalty for bribery up to $25,000.

Maximum civil penalties for violations of the financial disclosure law would rise from $2,000 to $10,000. The governor also wants to increase the criminal penalty for violating lobbying registration rules to $10,000 and five years in prison, instead of the current misdemeanor penalties of $100 to $5,000 with no possibility of prison.

Other changes would impose public reporting and activity monitoring now required of legislative lobbyists, on a group of political operatives and consultants who describe themselves as “strategists” who have not been subject to those reporting requirements in the past and have largely operated outside of public view in recent years.

The proposed new public reporting requirements would be extended to those who develop strategy, prepare and plan for communications with public officials for the purpose of influencing legislation. It also would partially close a current loophole allowing up to 50 hours of lobbying for legislation without public disclosures, by reducing the reporting threshold to 10 hours in any three-month period. Other changes would require lobbyists to disclose what bills they are working on, who their clients are and what payments they receive for their work.

The reform package also would broaden state wiretapping laws that currently limit the attorney general and state police to record conversations using wiretaps and hidden video and microphone equipment to organized crime investigations. The governor wants to expand the law to also allow recording of conversations in investigations into public corruption.

Other changes would give additional investigative powers to the secretary of state’s office, which oversees lobbying, and the Ethics Commission, which conducts confidential investigations into allegations of ethics law violations and tracks public officials’ financial disclosures.

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