Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ethics Gang Does Pretty Well

A three-quarters ass job by the Governor's Task Force on Public Integrity was far better than I expected. Assuming the 13-member panel (plus Gov. Deval Patrick) can say pretty please enough to get the legislature to pass the resulting ethics reform package, we'll take a pretty big stride. We'll end up not too far behind the civilized and honorable world.

Restraint Note: I promise not to let my twitching fingers go on too long. I read the TF report and would point the detail minded to the summary and whole thing. Both are available here. In addition, the large document has itemized proposals, legislation and such starting in appendices after page 61. That's right, you only need read 61 and not the whole 107 pages to get it all. The appendices have far more information than the newspapers and blogs have been running.

Frenetic Accomplishment

We should all note that this is a masterwork under incredible pressure. The gang of 13 on the TF (no doubt with many minions doing research, legal and clerical work) analyzed existing laws, regulations and procedures. They compared and contrasted these with federal and other states' versions. Then basically within a month and a half over the holidays, they produced very specific recommendations in each area.

Key to the report is an easy-to-implement set of changes the legislature can make. The TF did not deliver typically spongy generalities that would get lawmakers to harrumph to each other, saying, "We'll study the ramifications and get back with you on what's practical."

Unfortunately, the tone throughout the document is one of peering over the shoulders of other states. Again and again, recommendations such as increasing this or that penalty for ethics violations point to some other state's harsher levels. What the other guys are up to is much less powerful than what is appropriate on its own for Massachusetts and what is right and ethical.

Fools on the Hill

None of the increases in power for the Attorney General, Secretary of State, Ethics Commission and such will happen if the legislators don't act and act fully in compliance with this report. That's the way we do business here and part of what the TF gingerly addresses.

Immediately, Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi said he would be in no hurry to implement the recommended laws. He, as too many other members of the General Court, maintain huge egos. In DiMasi's case, it is the size of a Western state, maybe Wyoming.

Unfortunately, some likely sensible deference to the big shots appears in the TF findings. Most obviously, criticisms and calls for reform largely refer to "employees" of the state. In fact, there are elected, appointed or hired officials and employees who are targets of lobbyists, bribers and such. In reality, legislators are the most powerful and thus the most likely to find ethical temptation in influencing legislation, contracts and other big-money matters.

Above Reproach

Beyond increasing fines and possible (crazy unlikely) jail terms for violations, the report wants power — for the Ethics Commission, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General most of all. This too will likely run afoul of the General Court. Those guys love to make people, cities, and whole offices of government come hat in hand every time they want to do their jobs.

The TF wants the AG to have a statewide grand jury, for example. Presently, the AG can call one only in Suffolk County. (See the reasoning for expansion, starting on page 31.) Also, it wants the AG to be able to bring civil-enforcement procedures for ethics violations.

That was one of many what?! moments from reading the report. If civil fines are the workable and reasonable way to deal with lower-level ethics violations, why hasn't our chief law-enforcer been empowered to do this all along?

Moreover, much has been and will be made of the request to let the AG ask for wiretaps and other recording of transactions, typically of legislators and lobbyists or other favor seekers. I'm not big on bugging, but here the question is one of balance. If getting bribes and other such illegalities on tape is SOP for other law enforcement arms, why hasn't the AG been able to play the same game with the same rules all along?

There are other powers spread around. For example, the TF wants the Ethics Commission to have enough money to operate without begging the legislature for each new expenditure. It wants the Secretary of State to be able to make ethically related rules and regulations too.

These have the right aims, but include two perils:
  • The assumption that the AG and SoS are honorable and will actively monitor and punish friends, peers and the powerful equally and equitably.
  • The autonomous, new authority to make what are in effect laws will not be abused. Trust 'em.
Many of us have not been impressed with the integrity and diligence of the AG and SoS here for several administrations. Whether it was pursuing wrongdoing or judging the worthiness of ballot initiatives, the AG in particular has seemed either witless or cowardly too many times. In addition, current AG Martha Coakley has been obvious in her fund raising and public posturing that she is aiming for higher office. Giving the office enforcement and prosecution powers seems right, but the particularly person is less obvious.

The promulgation of rules and regulations that act as laws is trickier. At the state and particularly at the federal level, this can create problems. We can end up with satraps off with their own agenda and forces.

Keeping nearly all the power in the hands of the legislators is not workable. It is slow, subject to petty politics, and expensive in many ways. The General Court should create good structures, approve good people and keep their eyes on important business instead of playing big shots.

At the national level, whether it is the old Atomic Engergy Commission or the IRS, agencies and offices with the power to make their own rules need monitoring and sometimes push back. They can be private clubs as much as a legislative chamber can.

And Next

The TF recommendations are not ground shaking and the very self-interested legislators shouldn't flip out. Many of the increases in fines, for example, are relatively trivial and will not deter the greedy and corrupt. A bump from $5,000 to $10,000 for a major violation wouldn't.

If the lawmakers dawdle or balk on these largely common sense refinements, the public, press and governor should scream and point fingers.

The bad guys need to go away. Despite the benighted assertion by the governor and the opening TF statement that "...the existing substantive ethics rules governing the conduct of government employees are generally strong and broad, but substantial improvements are needed in the areas of enforcement, penalties, and education," that's not convincing. There have been nearly no prosecutions and loopholes abound in ethics rules and enforcement. I suspect the TF found it politically expedient to write what was necessary to get its recommendations enacted or enabled.

There's nothing shocking in here, even with the requests for more AG power. If the legislature is savvy as a group, it will say, "We welcome these improvements, blah, blah." If Coakley wants to be seen as a Teddy Roosevelt tough cop deserving of political elevation, she'll champion the findings and get busy catching crooked lawmakers and bureaucrats.

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