Globe Editorial

Winter of ethical discontent

December 10, 2008

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GOVERNOR PATRICK'S task force on public integrity was given a strict timetable - just eight weeks over a busy holiday period - to produce its final report. But the January deadline shouldn't serve as an excuse to sidestep tough issues, especially in this season of waning confidence in elected officials.

The 12-member task force is likely to recommend raising the paltry maximum fine of $2,000 now imposed on officials who violate the state's' conflict-of-interest law. Other easy-to-assemble recommendations, such as requiring lobbyists to wear name and affiliation badges while on duty in any public building, may surface. More controversial issues, including granting subpoena power to the secretary of state's office, are on the table. The need for such power became clear recently when Secretary of State William Galvin was blocked while attempting to follow a document trail left by three close associates of House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi. They have been accused by the state's inspector general of failing to report $1.8 million in lobbying fees.

The task force, which is scheduled to meet again today, needs to recommend bold actions that will inspire public confidence as well as address problems faced by administrators in the State Ethics Commission and Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Several states, including Connecticut, place outright bans on political contributions from lobbyists, or prohibit such contributions while lawmakers are in session. While hardly foolproof, it's the kind of message that needs to be heard on Beacon Hill.

The task force also needs to address the limited ability of state law enforcement officials to conduct electronic surveillance of public officials. State wiretap laws largely limit surreptitious one-party recordings to investigations involving organized crime. As a result, only federal agents can conduct the kind of photo surveillance that led to the recent arrests on bribery charges of former state senator Dianne Wilkerson and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner. Task force members, including former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, need to give the public clear guidance on the question of expanded surveillance.

The task force also needs to give the public fresh ideas on how to prevent corruption. Clear-cut cases of bribery are rare. But what of the state representative who dials up a developer and requests that a certain favored attorney or subcontractor be used on a condo project? If the developer balks, neighborhood opposition to the project can suddenly escalate. And that can lead to delays and increases in the cost of doing business in Massachusetts.

It's hard to connect the dots. But the task force needs to do so, before the state's integrity index dips even lower.