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The backdrop to former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi’s indictment is the wrangling over ethics at the Statehouse. Gov. Deval Patrick and both chambers are hashing out ethics-reform proposals.
Boston College law professor George Brown joined us to talk about ethics on Beacon Hill. He served on the governor’s Public Integrity Task Force, which delivered reform recommendations earlier this year, and was chairman of the state Ethics Commission in the 1990s.
Deborah Becker: How do you think the indictment of Sal DiMasi will affect these ethics reform proposals on Beacon Hill?
Prof. George Brown: I hope it will help them. I hope it will make legislators ask the question, “Would we rather have issues decided by the state Ethics Commission, which is primarily a civil-enforcement agency, or do we want to have a situation where the U.S. attorney’s office comes in, uses its considerable resources, and ends up bringing fairly serious criminal charges against state officials and those who’ve worked with him?”
A lot of the debate on these reform proposals at the Statehouse thus far has focused on the authority of the Ethics Commission. Why so much debate over that authority, and why are lawmakers so stuck on this idea of whether the commission should have the authority to subpoena and bring these investigations forward?
Well, that’s a good question. One of the things that struck me during the years that I was chair of the commission was how much antipathy, how much real ill will, there was toward it by members of the legislature and others in state government.
At the moment, the governor’s proposals are stalled in the state Senate; there’s a real disagreement between him and the legislature. As you probably know, he’s indicated that he might veto an unacceptable bill — we’re in kind of a standoff where nobody wins.
This indictment of former Speaker DiMasi obviously makes it three straight House speakers to face criminal charges — Speaker Charles Flaherty and Speaker Tom Finneran also were charged. Is there something about the speaker’s job up on Beacon Hill that leads to these charges or what’s going on?
Well, that’s a complex issue. First of all, it is an extremely powerful position, probably the most powerful position in state government. We are a strong legislature state — the legislature’s in session much of the year, it has a great deal of power. Furthermore, we’re a one-party state, so the speaker of the House is naturally going to be a member of the Democratic party.
And that person wields a tremendous amount of power, both direct — that is to say, power over particular pieces of legislation — and indirect — a call from the speaker’s office can get things done, quite frankly, more effectively sometimes than a call from the governor’s office.
So, I don’t necessarily think that one should generalize too readily. Yes, there is this history of the last three speakers, but I think it goes more deeply than that, into the position of speaker and indeed into the political culture itself.
Speaking of political culture, not too long ago we also had the charges against former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, and those corruption allegations. Which may lead the public to at least perceive that there is this sort-of culture of corruption up on Beacon Hill. Do you think that these latest charges against the House speaker will motivate lawmakers to do something about ethics reform?
I certainly hope so, and I think there’s a chance.
Does there have to be a cultural shift on Beacon Hill as well?
I think that the fact that we’re a one-party state, and members of the legislature are re-elected at an astonishing rate, I think that has a lot to say and is one of the reasons why we have the situation that we have.
Too much power?
Without any countervailing power. Without — the reason why the American system works so well is that we have checks and balances. I’m not sure those checks and balances are present in the state government. So what you have is the U.S. attorney stepping in to provide a check or balance that’s not present in the existing state system.
This program aired on June 3, 2009.
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