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Leaders approve ethics revamp

House, Senate to vote today; Bill would bar most gifts

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 25, 2009
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Legislative leaders unveiled the most sweeping ethics overhaul in decades yesterday, as they attempted to move past a series of high-profile scandals on Beacon Hill and reach an accord with Governor Deval Patrick on a sales tax increase.

The ethics bill - which strengthens enforcement, levies higher penalties for violations, and bans nearly all gifts to public officials - is the final piece of legislation requested by the governor before he said he would consider asking Massachusetts residents to pay more at the register.

“The public has come to view people in public life as playing by a different set of rules than everyone else,’’ House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said yesterday at an afternoon press conference. “By filing this bill, we will begin to restore the public’s confidence in government. This bill sends a very clear message to everyone: We are accountable. We hear the public’s cry for reform.’’

Despite months of calling on lawmakers to move quickly, Patrick has been far from swift in embracing the ethics and transportation packages offered by the Legislature. He gave no indication yesterday whether he would sign a transportation bill that has been on his desk for six days, although aides have indicated he has only minor problems with the proposal they are trying to work out with lawmakers.

Patrick also declined invitations from lawmakers to attend yesterday’s press conference, in part because his staff did not get a copy of the proposed legislation until minutes before it began.

“The governor is encouraged by the agreement announced today on this critical reform initiative,’’ Patrick’s spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, said in a statement. He said the administration was continuing to review the proposal and declined to comment further.

The ethics legislation, which the House and Senate are likely to approve today, would give the State Ethics Commission enhanced subpoena power and tougher fines for violations; require mayors to file campaign finance reports with the state; and increase penalties for crimes such as bribery, conflict of interest, and campaign finance violations.

“Our political process in Massachusetts is not for sale,’’ said Representative Peter V. Kocot, a Northampton Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Ethics. “Those trying to use corrupt practices and bribery will be caught and will be punished.’’

But there are several provisions that were left out, including one that would have banned lobbyists from making or soliciting campaign donations. The legislation also does not give the attorney general’s office wiretapping authority, as proposed by Patrick in his ethics bill. And while lawmakers made a big deal about strengthening open meeting laws for municipal officials, they made sure the Legislature would still be exempt.

“There’s no doubt there’s been a lot of lobbying on the lobbying bill by the lobbyists,’’ said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who expressed concern that the bill did not give him the power he had requested to issue rules regulating lobbyists.

The new plan also calls for a ban on certain gifts to public employees, although there are loopholes for ceremonial gifts and gifts given by friends or family members. It would be a civil offense for a public official to accept a gift of between $50 and $1,000, and a criminal offense, punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and five years in prison, to accept gifts worth more than $1,000.

The legislation would also tighten lobbying rules, defining a lobbyist as anyone paid to promote, oppose, or influence any decision in the executive or legislative branch. It would also force lobbyists to register if they work 25 hours or earn $2,500 during a six-month period. Under current law, lobbyists are more narrowly defined and must register only if they work 50 hours or earn $5,000.

The legislation would also ban the kind of special campaign committee that has allowed Patrick to maximize the amount of money he can raise from individual donors, well beyond the $500 limit. With his Seventy-First Fund, named after his status as the state’s 71st governor, Patrick has collected $5,500 from individuals, $500 of which goes directly to him and $5,000 to the state Democratic Party, which in turn has paid for some of the governor’s political bills.

The legislation would still allow $5,000 donations to political parties. Lawmakers had previously proposed limiting all campaign donations to $500, which would have made it difficult for Republicans to raise money ahead of next year’s election.

As lawmakers unveiled the bill, they were surrounded by law enforcement officials in an apparent effort to display broad support for the ethics legislation. Shortly after 5 p.m., Senate President Therese Murray emerged from her office with Attorney General Martha Coakley and officials from the State Ethics Commission and the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. She walked to DeLeo’s office before they all paraded into the House Members’ Lounge for a press conference.

“This is a day that we’ve all been waiting for,’’ Murray declared.

Several government watchdogs and law enforcement officials said that, while they had little time to review the proposal, it appeared to be far-reaching.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause, said it was “really a significant reform.’’

Coakley called it “a very strong statement about what does happen and doesn’t happen in government.’’

“This bill will give us the tools we need to promote ethics in government,’’ said Ethics Commission chairman Charles Swartwood, a retired federal magistrate judge. “It’s a terrific bill, and I’m very pleased.’’

Patrick originally formed an ethics task force in November, and filed legislation in January. Over several months, the House and Senate each approved their own versions and have been meeting for several weeks in a joint conference committee.

Republicans accused Democratic leaders yesterday of crafting the final legislation in secrecy, without input from rank-and-file members of the six-member conference committee.

“To be totally excluded from an ethics bill is so symbolic of what’s wrong with Beacon Hill,’’ said Representative Jeffrey Perry, a Republican from Sandwich and one of the committee members.

Patrick has vowed to veto a proposed sales tax increase, from 5 percent to 6.25 percent, unless the Legislature first approves pension, ethics, and transportation overhauls that he finds acceptable. Patrick has already signed new pension legislation, but the others remain in question as the deadline for action approaches. Patrick has until Monday to approve or veto aspects of the state budget, which would take effect at the beginning of the new fiscal year next Wednesday.

The Senate had two members resign last year, one of whom, Senator Dianne Wilkerson of Roxbury, was photographed by federal agents accepting money - 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.

This month, former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly orchestrating a scheme that allowed him to pocket $57,000 from a software company while he was using his office to make sure the company won state contracts.

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.