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Scot Lehigh

Tough ethics laws? Right

By Scot Lehigh
December 5, 2008

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THE GOVERNOR'S Task Force on Public Integrity held its only public hearing on Wednesday - and if someone had just thought to bring along an industrial-size can of gadfly repellent, it would have been a very worthwhile session indeed.

As it was, despite chairman Ben Clements' gentle request that testifiers focus on lobbying and ethics laws, the panel was treated to lengthy, looping digressions on subjects as varied as shady doings in the auto-body business and the long cosmic struggle between integrity and corruption, a review that ranged from the building of the Brooklyn Bridge to the 2002 Winter Olympics.

All in all, it was a bit like embarking on a Duck Tour of Boston, only to have one's fellow passengers commandeer the amphibious vehicle and set off on a voyage around Cape Horn.

Still, the gentleman who held forth on corruption through the decades struck one resonant note when he quoted Tammany Hall pol George Washington Plunkitt, who once observed, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

Why, that could be the motto of former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, caught on camera padding her bra with ill-gotten gains in what one wag has labeled the "Fill-A-Bustier" scandal, after the Fill-A-Buster, the Beacon Hill eatery where several non-bra-based bribes were accepted.

Although two of his lieutenants watched the proceedings like hawks, Speaker Sal DiMasi, embroiled in an ongoing controversy about state software contracts, didn't attend or present any recommendations. The speaker, you'll recall, responded to Governor Patrick's call for ethics reform by claiming that we already have some of the toughest laws in the nation.

Do we really?

"The laws we have now are ineffective because I have almost no enforcement authority," says Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whose office oversees the state's lobbying statutes.

One need only look at the Cognos controversy to spot some gaping holes.

As it pursued state contracts, the Burlington software company paid Steven Topazio, DiMasi's law associate, $125,000 from its lobbying account. Topazio, however, wasn't registered as a lobbyist. Nor was Richard Vitale, DiMasi's accountant and former campaign treasurer, who received $600,000 from Cognos's independent sales agent. Neither Topazio nor Vitale reported those payments. Richard McDonough, another DiMasi pal who is a registered lobbyist, failed to report $1.1 million of the $1.45 million he received from Cognos or its sales agent.

Although Galvin is a top-notch secretary of state, those payments came to light only because the inspector general got involved. Why? Because the IG has subpoena power and thus was able to pry that information loose. When it comes to overseeing lobbying, Galvin can't issue subpoenas.

Obvious conclusion: The secretary of state needs subpoena power.

Next, why aren't people who are doing what looks an awful lot like lobbying registering as lobbyists? Simple. Because they can flout the law without harsh consequences. Galvin's only real recourse is to refer the matter to the attorney general - and even if convicted, the maximum fine is just $5,000. Further, though a person can be denied the right to lobby for several years, the maximum financial penalty for those who fail to report lobbying payments is a mere $500.

"They don't regard it seriously," says Galvin.

The penalties available to the State Ethics Commission are just as paltry. As executive director Karen Nober told the task force, the maximum civil penalty is $2,000. In Connecticut and New York, it's $10,000; in Rhode Island, $25,000.

Obvious conclusion: We need stiffer penalties in both areas.

The commission, meanwhile, can't share information with the inspector general, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF), or the secretary of state. While we're at it, the top category of "$100,001 or more" on the commission's financial disclosure form is far too broad. Further, those disclosures need to be online.

Michael Sullivan, director of OCPF, noted that when the agency finds a violation, it is prohibited by law from referring it to the attorney general until after the next election.

So no, despite DiMasi's assertion, our laws really aren't that tough at all.

This task force seems serious about strengthening them. Why is it I doubt the Legislature will be?

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.