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Globe editorial

What's $10K among friends?

January 28, 2009
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ALREADY under indictment on bribery charges, former state senator Dianne Wilkerson made a jaw-dropping disclosure in Sunday's Globe, acknowledging she took more than $70,000 in gifts from friends and supporters. In an interview with reporter Donovan Slack, Wilkerson said that she took gifts of up to $10,000 per donor to pay off her own debts, and that the State Ethics Commission had advised her such gifts would be legal.

Yet one $10,000 gift came from a developer with interests in the former Democratic senator's Boston district. If she thinks the ethics panel blessed such a gift, she's reading the agency's letters incorrectly.

No matter what, her disclosure still reveals a yawning chasm in the state's campaign-finance and conflict-of-interest laws.

Big cash gifts to officials can be entirely legal - a loophole that makes a mockery of the state's $500 limit on individual campaign contributions. Under federal tax laws that are applicable to everyone, individuals can accept gifts of up to $12,000 without reporting them as income or paying taxes on them. Public officials in the state are under no special obligation to disclose such gifts.

There is one key restriction: Legislators must not take gifts from anyone with business before them - and must disclose a past gift if a conflict of interest arises later. As the Ethics Commission advised Wilkerson in a confidential 1997 letter obtained by the Globe, the restriction applies when donors have an interest "in any past, present, or future legislative act, including a bill, an appropriation, or a constituent service." A 2003 letter was slightly muddier, citing a need "to establish a link . . . between a gratuity and an official act."

And yet a $10,000 gift to Wilkerson from Arthur Winn, a developer whose proposed Columbus Center project would be located in her former district, still appears to violate the law. Common sense applies: Developers rarely give large sums to public officials just to be friendly. And Wilkerson didn't just lobby others on behalf of the project; she herself voted for state funding for it.

Under existing law, experts say, the burden falls on public servants to refuse improper gifts. Ethics legislation proposed by Governor Patrick would help by adding new criminal penalties for donors as well as for public officials who receive gifts for reasons connected to their public duties. Lawmakers should go further, by requiring public officials to disclose all gifts from non-relatives above a reasonable threshold - say, $500.

Wilkerson's situation also calls into question the role of the State Ethics Commission, which is required by statute to operate under strict confidentiality. When officials seek advice on whether certain conduct is legal, the agency's informal advisory letters are kept secret. Even when the commission votes on formal opinions, the identity of the official in question is withheld.

Other states defer far less to the delicate sensibilities of their officials. In Rhode Island, requests for ethics advice are public records. The Ethics Commission takes them up in open session and issues public reports. Massachusetts needs the same transparency. Under these rules, Wilkerson's constituents would have known a decade ago that she was asking about large gifts.

In her interview with the Globe, Wilkerson asserted that she never accepted money for any official act. "If they're going after corruption at the State House," she said, "I would be the 999th person on the list." Such attempts to implicate others seem awfully self-serving, in light of FBI photos of Wilkerson stuffing cash into her sweater. Yet even if such conduct were widespread, how would anyone know? The state's loose ethics rules do far too little to prevent improper payments - or even bring them to light.

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