Ethics reform

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
government advocates.

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
arguably illegal.

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.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

5 replies on “Ethics reform”

  1. How about cutting the Legislative job/Session to 6 months!
    These ethic changes look good but I doubt it will change much. The best way is to just cut in half the exploitation time.

  2. Will, it’s difficult to see the sales tax increase, the slashing of services to our most vulnerable citizens and accept other actions taken by the legislature to address the budget crisis and to read in the Globe almost every week about the police details at street repair sites, former state officials/legislators receiving money for years through some sort of budgetary “loophole,” firefighters with minor injuries on years’ long “sick leave,” people with impressive job titles earning 6-figure salaries seemingly for life without having to show up at the office and countless other blatant abuses of public trust. I’m not the only MA resident to believe if every one of these abuses were aggressively addressed, then maybe there would be a few dollars to spare for the elderly blind people at their neighborhood center (soon to be closed) in Roxbury.

  3. Beacon Hill has to stop the stone walling! We as taxpayers have the right to know where and how our money is spent and the fact that most of the House and Senate REFUSE to give details on there staff makes the taxpayers think “what are they hiding?” It must be something BIG.

    And the fact that they exempted themselves from the Transarency that everyone else has to follow is VERY telling..

    This should be number ONE on the reform agenda.

    There should be a web site that any Taxpayer can access that will tell them who works for who and how much they make.

    It’s called check and Balances.

    It keeps the honest people honest and the thieves in check.

  4. Representative Brownsberger:
    I’m in complete agreement with Barbara Cone. It is totally unacceptable(unconscionable, really) to leave loopholes, selective perks, and abuses in place for now and years to come and then to gut programs that amount to matters of basic survival for at risk kids, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.
    We want real reform.

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