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Menino, Petruccelli should reject donations from racetrack owner

October 7, 2011

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THE DONATIONS from the owner of Suffolk Downs, Richard Fields, to charities controlled by Mayor Tom Menino and state Senator Anthony Petruccelli of East Boston are not considered campaign contributions. So they are not subject to the same limitations or strict rules of disclosure. They are even tax deductible. But they still represent attempts to influence elected officials. Menino and Petruccelli should give back the money and refuse future donations from Fields as he attempts to build a giant casino atop his racetrack.

Contributions to charities controlled by politicians may be a legal gray area, but Fields’ intentions are black and white: He needs the support of Menino and Petruccelli to make hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling and resort revenues. The mayor and Petruccelli hold enough strings to help determine not only whether a Suffolk Downs casino gets licensed, but how much Fields and his fellow investors will have to give back to the East Boston neighborhood, whose character will be forever altered by a casino.

Even though the dollar figures were modest ($10,000 from Fields’s foundation to Menino’s fund, $6,000 to Petruccelli’s), they can serve the same purpose as campaign contributions in buying access to elected officials. But they far exceed the legal limits for campaign contributions. Like campaign funds, the charities help the politicians maintain a high profile, through events such as the “Mayor’s Cup’’ bicycle race and the block party on City Hall Plaza.

It defies human nature to believe that the donations by Fields, who lives in Jackson, Wyo., would provoke no sense of gratitude from either Menino or Petruccelli. And gratitude toward a potential casino developer is the last thing the citizens of Boston need from their public officials. The impact of the decisions Menino and Petruccelli make about the casino will be felt for generations in Boston.

In a situation like this, it’s important for everyone to remember the reason for campaign-finance limits and conflict-of-interest laws: It’s not to keep money out of candidates’ pockets or campaign coffers as much as to ensure that the decisions they make are purely on the merits, unswayed by any sense of friendship or obligation. And special interests can buy a politician’s goodwill just as readily through a charitable contribution as through a campaign donation. Former US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay went to prison after a jury determined that lobbyists were buying his favors through gifts to his charity.

Yet charities controlled by politicians remain free of donation caps and strict disclosure rules. Until the Legislature takes action, elected officials should police themselves. Wisely, the three top leaders on Beacon Hill - Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo - do not have similar charities. Menino and Petruccelli should keep a closer eye on theirs.