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Scandals cast shadow on state Democrats

As gloom deepens, new vows on ethics

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 7, 2009
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There was a moment last week when Representative Denis E. Guyer was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 93. He was in his red Toyota Matrix, sporting old campaign bumper stickers and a special House of Representatives license plate meant to be an honor bestowed on elected officials.

But after the indictment of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi - the third Democrat to face criminal charges in 11 months - residents are in no mood to give much respect to those who work on Beacon Hill.

One motorist pointed his middle finger squarely at Guyer. Shortly after, another motorist did the same.

"A lot of us are in shock," said Guyer, a Democrat from Dalton. "I'm in shock."

Democrats have never had more power in Massachusetts, and it has been on their watch that the political and ethical culture on Beacon Hill has reached its lowest point in decades. The House, Senate, and Patrick administration have all been battered in recent months, and are trying to regroup as they face reelection next year.

"Everything is spinning around chaotically," said Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. "It's just negative. It's hard to find that glimmer of hope, that glimmer of optimism, and we're all trying to find it. But it's been pretty elusive thus far."

The House last week saw its former leader indicted for allegedly accepting $57,000 in payments from Canadian software company Cognos ULC while he pushed contracts for the company. One of the contracts was approved in 2007 by Governor Deval Patrick's administration, which missed numerous red flags that it was being rammed through at DiMasi's behest without sufficient scrutiny.

The Senate had two members resign last year, one of whom, Senator Dianne Wilkerson of Roxbury, was photographed by federal agents stuffing money into her bra - an alleged payoff for her help in passing legislation. The other, Senator J. James Marzilli Jr. of Arlington, was indicted on charges of accosting four women in downtown Lowell.

Lawmakers have reacted much like family members after a death or disgrace strikes close to home, unable to bring themselves to discuss specifics or, in some cases, even mentioning the names of their former colleagues.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, when talking about his predecessor's indictment, resorts to generalities, referring to "the news of a couple of days ago." Panagiotakos calls all of the recent scandals "these other issues around," even as Republicans have seized on the opportunity, plastering DiMasi's name in bold letters atop press releases.

"I'm sure every elected Democrat in the state is trying to figure out what hit the party," State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill said in an interview. "Because it's not just Sal."

At the state Democratic Convention in Springfield yesterday, Cahill's assessment seemed about right.

One local official attending, Mattapoisett School Committee member Charles Motta, said he was disturbed that it took a federal probe to bring the alleged wrongdoing to light. "I'm sure the people in [the State House] knew what was going on," said Motta, 65.

But others stressed that these are cases alleged corrupt acts by individuals, not by the party.

'The party has nothing to do with it," said Farooq Karim-Mirza, 60, a Framingham resident.

The ethical controversies and corruption scandals come on top of the discord among top Democrats at the State House, who are divided over whether to increase the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6.25 percent.

"These times are not matched by any time I've seen," said Representative David Flynn, a Bridgewater Democrat and dean of the House. "They're weighing more heavily on legislators than any time I've been involved. The pressure is quite severe from constituents. And it's only natural to try and blame someone."

By all accounts, DiMasi's indictment rocked the marble corridors of the State House. Almost every House Democrat voted in January to give him another term as speaker, a decision some privately expressed shame over last week.

But some lawmakers took a not-my-problem posture, determined to press on, despite the political equivalent of a 50-car pileup on the Turnpike.

"We're doing the important work that the people send us to Beacon Hill to do," said Representative David Linsky, a Democrat from Natick. "And we're not going to let the action of a few of our colleagues keep us from doing that type of work."

Despite months of pledges to embark on ethics, pension, and transportation reform, a final bill has yet to be produced. A six-member conference committee met for the first time Thursday afternoon to discuss ethics reform - and the first action taken was to close their meetings to the public. On Friday, the same decision was made by a committee reviewing the budget, new taxes, and which programs to cut.

The Senate last month unanimously approved an ethics bill that gutted the ethics commission, although this week senators plan to meet with Ethics Commission chairman Charles Swartwood, a former federal magistrate judge.

"There is a real mood of reform in this building. I really sense that," DeLeo said in an interview. "At the end of the day we can't let one incident wash away all the good that we have done."

Senate President Therese Murray said lawmakers were close to moving on several pieces of legislation but added that little could be done to prevent the type of corruption DiMasi and Wilkerson are accused of. "It has always been against the law to use your office to line your pockets," she said. "It's just like dealing drugs. Everyone knows it's against the law but they still deal drugs. Everyone knows it's against the law to take money, but we've got two members - one from the House and one from the Senate - accused of doing that."

Still, lawmakers are getting angry phone calls and e-mails as they attempt to defend voting for things like retaining special holidays for state employees in Suffolk County. And, in a sign that power and relationships are often more significant than appearances, lobbyist Richard McDonough, who was indicted Tuesday for conspiring with DiMasi, attended a State House rally just two days later against a proposal for new taxes on alcohol purchases. One of his clients is Anheuser-Busch.

"There does seem to be sort of a Groundhog Day approach to this," Cahill said. "You look up and the same thing seems to be repeating itself again. You just say to yourself, 'When are people going to learn?' . . . I think back to Dianne Wilkerson and how dirty things felt for about a week, and then it kind of passed."

Cahill, who is weighing a 2010 run for governor, has not been immune to controversy. There has been scrutiny over some of the state treasury contracts that have involved Cahill's friends and political supporters.

Democrats have dominated state politics in recent years, achieving a historic majority in the Legislature and recapturing the corner office in 2006 for the first time in 16 years.

But some of the recent controversies have given new hope to minority parties, which have been harping on a theme that one-party rule is bad for state government.

The state's Green-Rainbow Party last week called DiMasi's indictment "the tip of the iceberg."

"Urgently needed legislation gets sidetracked while legislative leadership puts their greatest efforts into doing favors for their friends," said party co-chair Eli Beckerman. "Catching one of them in an illegal act once in a while doesn't address the massive flow of money that goes from special interests into campaign accounts."

The Massachusetts Republican Party has called on Patrick to investigate what roles his aides played in the awarding of the Cognos contract.

"The public's trust will not be restored until there is a full explanation of the role played by all public officials and employees in this House-for-sale scandal, and all we are hearing is a lot of 'no comments,' " GOP executive director Nick Connors said in a statement. "Governor Patrick should immediately launch an investigation into the role his top advisers played in this sordid affair and release the findings."

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