Final Ethics Reform Bill Passed Unanimously

The House voted unanimously in support of far-reaching ethics reform today. The bill included not only core ethics reforms (enhanced penalties for all forms of inappropriate gifts and self-dealing), but also enhanced regulation of lobbying and campaign political finance.

The results will be greater transparency in government, higher barriers to appropriate influences on officials, easier detection of misconduct and a generally heightened sensitivity to ethical issues among officials — all good.

What gave members great comfort in voting for the bill was a strong sense that the right players had been continuously involved in negotiating and refining a robust package. All of the enforcement agencies that play a part in overseeing the political process were included — the Ethics Commission, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance and the Secretary of State. The Governor through his counsel also participated.

Common Cause, the ethics advocacy group, issued a glowing endorsement of the bill, calling it the most significant reform in decades.

In many respects the final bill is consistent with the bill that the House voted in March, which I summarized in a previous post. The final bill goes well beyond the House bill in reforming state and local Open Meeting law rules. The bill adds much greater clarity and specificity to the rules and lodges statewide enforcement with the Attorney General. The Massachusetts Municipal Association and the newspaper editors — sometimes at odds an open meeting law issues — were both in support of the carefully negotiated reforms.

Another area in which the final bill improves on the earlier House draft is in the gift ban. The final bill includes stronger prohibitions on gifts. Bribery has always been clearly outlawed. The grey area has been as to gifts that are not directly related to official actions — relationship gifts. These are more clearly criminalized in the final bill. The distinction between social niceties and inappropriate influence can be subtle. The exact line remains a little bit difficult to discern, but the line has been moved strongly in the direction of prohibition of gifts.

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Will Brownsberger
State Senator
2d Suffolk and Middlesex District