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Scot Lehigh

A bold state GOP plan to clean House

Dan Winslow is part of a group of state House Republicans proposing an ethics overhaul. Dan Winslow is part of a group of state House Republicans proposing an ethics overhaul. (Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / July 1, 2011

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KUDOS TO the Bay State’s House Republicans for meeting the moment.

With former Speaker Sal DiMasi’s corruption conviction casting a long shadow over Beacon Hill, Republican representatives last week proposed an ethics overhaul for their sullied chamber.

The GOP band wants to launch a debate “about what we can and should do . . . to restore the image of the institution,’’ declared Minority Leader Brad Jones. Or as Norfolk Republican Dan Winslow puts it, “It’s time to clean the House by raising the ethical standards we all live under.’’

There’s a lot here worthy of serious discussion.

The Republican plan would essentially establish an honor code for legislators, obligating them to report to the House Ethics Committee any unethical or potentially criminal conduct by other members or staff. Members would have to disclose to committee leaders if arrested, indicted, or named in a domestic-violence restraining order. Sexual harassment and discrimination would be added as offenses for which the House could discipline members.

Legislators would be forbidden from contacting public entities about the awarding of contracts or purchasing of services before the agencies had settled on vendors. That would establish a bright line prohibiting conduct like DiMasi’s efforts to steer a state software contract to Cognos.

Representatives would be forbidden from hiring family members of other legislators. All legislator-initiated job recommendations would have to be in writing. (The House has already voted for such a requirement, plus making those recommendations subject to public records requests; both were in the speaker’s probation reform plan.)

Lobbyists would be prohibited from entering the House chamber, as they can now do on some ceremonial occasions. They wouldn’t be allowed in the members’ private lounge unless a public event was being held there.

What’s more, members couldn’t let themselves be lobbied unless the legislative agent was wearing an identification badge. One needn’t consider lobbyists rascals or rogues like DiMasi pal and fellow felon Richard McDonough to see ID badges as a way to make their role more apparent to the public. Still, that idea would work better if crafted as a law requiring lobbyists to wear badges within the State House.

The GOP plan also aims to reinvigorate the sleepy House Ethics Committee. Currently composed of seven Democrats and four Republicans, the panel would have four members from each party. As is currently the case, the restructured committee could initiate an investigation upon a majority vote of its members. At session’s end, it would be obligated to detail the number of complaints received, the number with merit, and the action taken.

Their press conference showed House Republicans in a new light. Having picked up almost two dozen members last year, they are intent on playing a larger role. Nearly as notable as the ethics package itself was the shrewd way it was presented. Although the Republicans had had their plan ready for a month or so, they waited until after the DiMasi verdict to unveil it.

The GOP proposal also shows Winslow’s growing influence. Chief legal counsel to former Governor Mitt Romney in one previous incarnation and a district court judge in another, he combines a reformer’s idealism with a marketer’s sense of how to make a splash. Another example of that came when he noted that Republicans would delay filing their legislation to give Democrats time to sign aboard as co-sponsors.

Waiting for the DiMasi verdict paid off. In the post-verdict environment, House Speaker Robert DeLeo issued a statement praising the Republicans for “offering some positive proposals’’ and pledging to take “a serious look’’ at them. That said, in a stunningly idiotic remark to the State House News Service, Democratic Representative John Binienda of Worcester, chairman of the House Rules Committee, compared requiring lobbyists to wear IDs to the Nazis tattooing Jewish concentration camp victims. (Binienda later apologized.)

Let’s hope the speaker is sincere, because there are some good and interesting ideas here. And let’s also hope this is just the first of many Republican reform moves. Their well-timed, eye-catching plan shows once again how much Beacon Hill could benefit from healthy two-party competition.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.