Elise Amendola/AP
Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick

Massachusetts Promises to Clean House After Slew of Ethical Disasters

January 27, 2009 04:02 PM
by Christopher Coats
After a year of resignations and indictments, the Massachusetts legislature, lead by Gov. Deval Patrick, has introduced legislation to fight an increasing number of ethical violations.

A Response to a Dismal Year

Introduced by Patrick earlier this month, the legislation was backed this week by outgoing House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who is resigning amid a flurry of accusations, tying him to an influence peddling investigation.

DiMasi is the third consecutive House Speaker to resign under similar circumstances, as well as the third Massachusetts representative to step down in the last year.

In November, state senator Diane Wilkerson resigned after she was indicted on eight counts of corruption, including the acceptance of bribes, which she was caught on video stuffing into her clothing.

In an unofficial case in June, state senator James Marzilli dropped his reelection bid and checked himself into a psychiatric hospital after he was charged with sexual assault.

DiMasi’s resignation comes after the exit of Speaker Thomas Finerman in 2004 and Charles Flaherty in 1996; both as a result of federal investigations.

DiMasi, who was reelected as speaker on Jan. 7, has insisted he is innocent of any charges, and said he was stepping down to pursue his work as a lawyer and to spend more time with his family.

However, the announcement comes as an increasing number of questions have arisen surrounding his relationships to associates accused of influence peddling, including his former campaign treasurer, Richard Vitale.

Vitale was accused of pushing ticket scalping legislation after he gave a $250,000 loan to DiMasi and subsequently resigned from the accounting firm he created.

DiMasi’s announcement also comes after Gov. Patrick announced a sweeping new set of ethics reforms that would sharply increase fines for legislators found to have violated the law, and gave subpoena and wire-tapping powers to the attorney general.

Under Massachusetts state law, the attorney general is charged with monitoring the actions of lobbyists and their relationships with elected officials.

“No one can legislate morality, we know that. But we can do our best to assure ourselves and the public that the consequences for breaching the public trust will be serious, swift and certain,” Patrick told the Boston Herald.

According to MIT’s Tech newspaper, Patrick’s proposal includes “increasing the maximum punishment for bribery to $100,000 and 10 years in prison, from $5,000 and three years.” The secretary of state would also be allowed to revoke lobbyists' licenses if they violated the law.

Voicing her support for the legislation, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley told the State House News Service, “These gaps in the law provide for some to seek undue influence or others to abuse their positions of power.”

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Context: A tense legislative partnership

Despite his high praise for the outgoing Speaker, calling him “a valued partner and a good friend in the Legislature,” Patrick has retained a safe, but tense distance from DiMasi.

Much of their disagreement has come from Patrick’s support of gambling projects in the state, as DiMasi is staunchly anti-casino. While Beacon Hill politics has usually been a local topic of interest, the conflict between the speaker and the governor, both Democrats, spilled over into the national spotlight in March when Patrick—a national figure thanks to his connections to President Barack Obama—vented his frustration in The New York Times.

The split not only made headlines in Manhattan, but also invited increased scrutiny to the legislative environment in Boston.

Although the two became closer in recent months, their relationship was further strained by DiMasi's refusal to hand over personal documents related to an ethics investigation to a bipartisan committee, formed to help Patrick draft his reform package.

Background: Fear of a systematic problem

In addition to those elected officials forced from office in the last year, the Massachusetts state government has also seen a number of lower level cases of corruption, including the acceptance of bribes and theft of official property.

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