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Waves of scandal rattle Beacon Hill

Beacon Hill is awash in charges of political corruption. Some fear Senator Dianne Wilkerson (left) could give up additional information to seek a lighter sentence. House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi is accused of ethical failings, and Senate President Therese Murray was subpoenaed. Beacon Hill is awash in charges of political corruption. Some fear Senator Dianne Wilkerson (left) could give up additional information to seek a lighter sentence. House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi is accused of ethical failings, and Senate President Therese Murray was subpoenaed.
By Matt Viser and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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Senator Dianne Wilkerson seemed to think last week that her Senate colleagues would go easy on her. And she had reason. All her past indiscretions had been overlooked, and the collegial body that meets in a powder-blue room with cushy chairs has never tried to oust one of its own before a conviction for a crime.

"I trust that you will act consistent with prior practice," Wilkerson wrote in a letter to the Senate president.

But Wilkerson clearly misjudged the size of the shock wave her arrest on bribery charges triggered on Beacon Hill.

Members of the House and Senate - and the Massachusetts public - have already been subjected to a stream of news about the alleged ethical failings of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and his close friends. As the taint of corruption settled deeply over the State House last week and subpoenas from the US attorney's office were delivered to top-ranking state officials by the hour, Wilkerson's Senate colleagues quickly moved to purge her.

Beacon Hill is once again awash in charges of political corruption, cronyism, and influence peddling, a spate of scandals that seasoned observers describe as perhaps the worst in three decades. And the sense that shoddy or criminal behavior has become pervasive is peaking just as the state confronts its worst financial crisis in years and needs strong leadership from its elected officials.

"It's really other-worldly, honestly," Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, said of the current atmosphere on Beacon Hill. "What happens at a time like this is it reinforces the worst and the most cynical in politics. And the worst thing a politician can feel is that the public thinks everyone is on the take. Who knows how long we're going to be in the aftermath."

Lawmakers say they are being confronted by angry constituents in the waning days of their reelection campaigns. Top politicians have responded that Wilkerson's arrest by the FBI is based on the alleged actions of one rogue senator and that it does not reflect how Massachusetts politics really works.

But federal investigators have cast a wide net in the case, and some fear that Wilkerson could give up additional information to seek a lighter sentence. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Maureen Feeney, City Council president, and Senate President Therese Murray have all received federal grand jury subpoenas in the Wilkerson case and have been referenced in one another's subpoenas - creating the appearance of a web of unseemly politicking that stretches from the State House to City Hall.

As one grand jury prepares for testimony in US District Court, DiMasi is under siege, with several ongoing investigations, including a state grand jury probe into more than $2 million in payments paid by a state computer software contractor to three of his close associates. One of the speaker's associates who received payments, his personal accountant, Richard Vitale, gave DiMasi a highly unusual third mortgage on his North End condominium.

"This has got to stop," Representative Cory Atkins, a Democrat from Concord, said of the overall atmosphere. "Voters hate it. Our greatest asset is our integrity, and if we blow that, we blow the democratic trust."

Governor Deval Patrick, who came to office vowing to change the culture, is now watching that culture career out of control. But even the self-professed reformer governor has taken his lumps, accused of using loopholes in state campaign laws to leverage jumbo contributions from lobbyists and businesses seeking favors from state government.

He also, like many prominent officeholders, endorsed Wilkerson in the Democratic primary despite her long list of previous legal problems, saying it was a matter of loyalty because of her early endorsement of his 2006 candidacy.

"I came to Beacon Hill to bring change," Patrick said Friday in announcing a special task force to propose ethics reforms. "We need ethics and lobbying reform, and we need it now."

The turmoil could not come at a worse time, with legislative leaders huddling with their lawyers behind closed doors, politically weakened and distracted when they need to be focused on closing the $1.4 billion budget gap created by the national financial crisis and dealing with chronic financial problems in transportation, healthcare, and education.

"It's certainly a very turbulent time for all of us," said Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, chairman of Ways and Means, referencing both the state's budget problems and political climate. "There's a lot of uncertainty about what's tomorrow going to bring."

The top leaders of the Senate and House have been forced repeatedly to defend their reputations.

The Wilkerson arrest is testing Murray, who faces her first political crisis since being elected president in March 2007.

Murray was mentioned in an FBI affidavit as being present at a closed-door meeting with Wilkerson and other leaders to broker a deal for more liquor licenses in Boston - five of which, Wilkerson allegedly claimed in FBI tapes, were hers to control. Murray, who has publicly denied she was at that meeting, also received a subpoena last week and is prominently mentioned in subpoenas sent to other government offices, including one to the state's technology division demanding that her e-mails be preserved.

"I'm comfortable and confident that the integrity of the Senate - and my own integrity - will remain intact at the end of this ordeal," Murray said Thursday during a news conference, after she led the Senate to a unanimous vote calling on Wilkerson to resign and urging an ethics investigation that could lead to her expulsion.

DiMasi, meanwhile, has repeatedly asserted that he had nothing to do with the award of a flawed $13 million contract to Cognos ULC, the company responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to his friends. He suggested, in an open letter to his colleagues this year, that a Cognos sales associate was dropping his name for political purposes without his knowledge.

Despite his repeated entreaties, the weakened DiMasi has been unable to quell organizing efforts within the House by two people vying to succeed him: Robert DeLeo, chairman of Ways and Means, and John H. Rogers, the majority leader.

But in an indication of how charged the atmosphere is, Rogers, too, is among those facing ethics allegations. He has been defending himself over an arrangement in which his campaign allegedly paid funds to a consultant who in turn made mortgage payments on a vacation home on Cape Cod owned by Rogers and his wife.

In still another controversy brewing, in Central Massachusetts, Robert P. Spellane, a Worcester Democrat and vice chairman of the committee that regulates banks, has been forced to explain how he was able to forgo a year's worth of payments on a $340,000 loan from a local bank with an executive who supports him politically.

And while the charges did not involve or conflict with his public duties, state Senator J. James Marzilli's bizarre arrest on charges that the Arlington Democrat sexually harassed and accosted four women in downtown Lowell has only heightened the image that Beacon Hill is sliding out of control. The Senate has not expelled Marzilli, although it referred his case to the Senate Ethics Commission. There has been no action in the four months since the referral. He is not running for reelection.

"It is a time of crisis," said Scott Harshbarger, former attorney general, who praised Patrick for announcing formation of a special ethics task force Friday. "That is a danger, but it also represents a great opportunity to make major reforms."

But the track record for past reform efforts is spotty.

Over the years, reformers have seen the political establishment cut the budgets and challenge many of the powers of the State Ethics Commission and the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. In the early 1990s there was a full-fledged assault on ethics laws as state lawmakers sought to limit the investigative powers of the Ethics Commission, including taking away its subpoena powers in preliminary inquiries and forcing it to reveal confidential informants.

DiMasi, who was House chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the time, challenged an Ethics Commission subpoena of his records, taking the case to the Supreme Judicial Court. The court ruled in favor of DiMasi, saying there was no legal basis to subpoena his documents after his name appeared in a lobbyist's records as taking more than $700 worth of meals, golfing fees, and entertainment expenses.

"Each time they took action over the next ten or twenty years, their powers were challenged and eroded," Harshbarger said. "This is a real opportunity to get back on track."

Most recently, reformers were dismayed when the Legislature in 2003 repealed a statewide referendum approving the Clean Elections Law, a sweeping measure designed to break the stranglehold that, reformers believe, special interests have on the electoral process.

It remains to be seen where, on the scale of past scandals, the current series of events will fall.

In the early 1960's, a special commission found fraud and payoffs in the state's construction of Boston Common's underground garage.

The State House was engulfed in scandal in the 1970's over bribes given to legislators by the contractor building the University of Massachusetts' Boston campus. The Senate majority leader, Joseph J.C. DiCarlo of Revere; a ranking Senate Republican leader, Ronald A. MacKenzie; and James A. Kelly Jr., the Senate Ways and Means chairman, all were convicted in federal court and sentenced to jail time.

In 1984, the House assistant majority leader, Vincent J. Piro of Somerville, allegedly took a $5,000 bribe, saying he had to "grease a few guys" to get him a special liquor license. His first trial ended in a hung jury. He was acquitted in a second trial.

"Each generation has had their scandals," said Jack Beatty, the historian and biographer of one of Boston's most famous rogues, James Michael Curley. "We will have a high-minded commission named after someone, and there will be resolves that Massachusetts will reform itself. But Massachusetts political culture being what it is, the infallible patterns will be repeated for the next generation."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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