Last night, the House passed a very strong ethics reform bill. Speaker
Deleo, understanding the deep public anger about the scandals of the recent
past, made this bill his top early priority. Transportation and pension
reform bills will follow over the next few weeks.
The bill adopts most of the recommendations of the Governor’s recent ethics
task force and was strongly influenced by Common Cause and other good
First, the bill strengthens regulation of lobbying. Lobbying — systematic
communication with legislators to influence the outcome of legislation — is
an essential part of the democratic process. But secret professional
lobbying too often goes hand in hand with corruption. The basic theory of
our strong existing lobbying law is to shine a light on professional
lobbying by requiring lobbyists to register and to disclose their clients,
their clients’ interests and expenditures that they make on behalf of their
The bill significantly broadens the definition of lobbying to reach strategy
consulting and other borderline activities. These changes are, in part,
responsive to the Vitale case last year, in which an accountant allegedly
engaged in activity to influence legislation in the shadows just beyond the
reporting spotlight of the existing law. The bill also expands lobbyist
reporting requirements and gives the Secretary of State, the office that
oversees lobbying disclosures, subpoena power to force disclosure and
Second, the bill expands reporting requirements for campaign contributions,
increasing the frequency of reports, increasing penalties for non-reporting
and most importantly closing a couple of major reporting loopholes. Under
existing law, one prominent legislator made a practice of large bulk
payments of campaign funds to a consultant and was not required to itemize
the uses of the funds. This allowed the consultant to use the campaign
funds to pay the mortgage on a vacation home shared with the legislator.
The new rules would require itemization of these bulk payments. The bill
also puts in place reporting requirements for non-campaign accounts — legal
defense funds, inaugural funds and recount funds. As in the lobbying area,
the bill strengthens the enforcement power of the relevant regulator — the
Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Finally, the bill expands the power of the state Ethics Commission to
regulate conflicts of interest and gifts and gratuities to public employees.
Chapter 268A of the general laws holds public employees to a high standard
of independence from corrupt influences. Outright bribery, is, of course,
prohibited. And the law goes further to require officials to avoid any
appearance that they can be improperly influenced. Essentially every
activity which one could reasonably question as being unethical is already
The bill makes a small change in the wording of the enabling statute for the
Ethics Commission which will greatly expand the control of the commission
over the activities of public officials. Whereas previously, the commission
could only regulate to clarify exemptions to the conflicts, gifts and
gratuities laws, the commission will now be able to regulate affirmatively
to implement these laws.
The other small wording change which will have a big practical impact is
that the Ethics Commission will now have subpoena power for investigations.
The bill also creates a new felony punishment for destroying records that
the commission needs for investigatory purposes and lengthens prison terms
for most existing ethics crimes.
On the day of the vote, there was much talk about the possible need to
strengthen the language of one of the several sections of Chapter 268A which
speak to gifts received by public employees. The legislative leadership
team listened carefully to a group of us who were advocating the adoption of
the language originally proposed by the Governor’s task force. Others were
concerned that the Governor’s language would create traps for innocent
employees. At the end of the day, leadership did move to further strengthen
the bill. The crush of drafting a compromise under pressure may have led to
some awkward language, but that can be further improved as the bill moves
Ultimately, of course, laws and regulations can only go so far towards
changing behavior. My greatest hope for the House as an institution is not
in the additional rules and oversight, but in the quality of the
appointments that the new speaker has made to his leadership team. I do
think that the key people in positions of responsibility in the House have
the goal of running a legislative process that is above question.