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Globe Editorial

What's a lobbyist, anyway?

December 20, 2008
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HOUSE SPEAKER Salvatore DiMasi had little to say after a state grand jury indicted his accountant, Richard Vitale, on charges that he violated the state's lobbying and campaign finance laws. And what DiMasi did offer - in a prepared statement - was off the mark.

Vitale is accused of using his influence last year to lobby DiMasi and House Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas Petrolati on behalf of Massachusetts ticket brokers without disclosing his activities. In April, DiMasi denied speaking with Vitale about the group's bill. But the investigation outlined multiple contacts between Vitale and the elected officials on behalf of the ticket brokers. Vitale, who provided a $250,000 third mortgage to DiMasi at below-market terms in 2006, is also the likely subject of a federal probe into questionable multimillion-dollar state contracts to the software company Cognos.

DiMasi described his decisions as based solely on "the best interests" of his constituents, citing "ticket legislation that protects consumers." But the merits of the bill, which would ease regulations on the resale of sports tickets, aren't at issue here. The issue is whether Vitale tried to get around lobbying rules and whether the integrity of the legislative process suffered as a result.

The recent investigations have placed the entire culture of Beacon Hill on trial, especially shady lobbying practices and weak ethics laws. People with friends in high places feel free to engage in classic lobbying activities - receiving compensation for promoting, opposing, or influencing legislation - while passing themselves off as "strategists" to avoid public disclosure laws. It's a sick system that deserves careful scrutiny from Governor Patrick's anti-corruption task force. Members of the task force should need no more proof than the recent finding by the state inspector general that Vitale and two other DiMasi friends failed to disclose a whopping $1.8 million in lobbying fees in connection with the awarding of the $17.5 million Cognos contracts in 2006 and 2007.

State law defines a lobbyist, but it may also need to better define the act of lobbying. Attorney General Martha Coakley says Vitale forwarded messages from ticket brokers to DiMasi's personal e-mail and promoted their bill to representatives in unofficial settings. If existing law isn't enough to classify such activities as lobbying, it needs to be tuned up. The task force should review how other states handle the problem and recommend a fix.

The task force should also look at changing the law that requires people to register as lobbyists only if they work 50 hours in a six-month period. Ten or 20 hours of so-called "incidental lobbying" is more than enough. But no restrictions will work if the politically connected can just define their way around them.

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