Thursday, June 25, 2009

Attacking perceptions and ignoring reality

In a typically grandiose and self-congratulatory announcement yesterday evening of what state legislators are humbly calling a "historic" ethics reform package, Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Care to go for four in a row?) made a telling statement characterizing the ethical problems the bill supposedly addresses (from today's Globe): "The public has come to view people in public life as playing by a different set of rules than everyone else..."

Get that? The problem is how you and I have "come to view people in public life." And how, exactly, have we come to that view? The Speaker did not say.

Is it perhaps more the problem that "people in public life" have "come to view" themselves "as playing by a different set of rules than everyone else"?

Anyhow, it is this self-exonerating conception of the problem - one of perception - to which the highly-touted ethics reform package released yesterday addresses itself. Again from DeLeo: "By filing this bill, we will begin to restore the public’s confidence in government. This bill sends a very clear message to everyone..."

Ah yes, they have filed a bill. What a clear message! Here are a few other messages, arguably clearer:

(1) Senator Diane Wilkerson (D-Aisle 9, Ladies' Undergarments). In 1997 she was convicted of federal tax evasion and sentenced to house arrest. She kept her seat and positions on powerful committees, and enjoyed the continued support of her Democratic colleagues.

In 2001 she was fined by the State Ethics Commission for failing to report that a bank for which she carried water in the Senate was paying her $20K a year as a "consultant." She kept her seat and positions on powerful committees, and enjoyed the continued support of her Democratic colleagues.

In 2005 she paid $40K to settle a suit brought by the Attorney General over a number of sketchy campaign contributions and expenditures. She kept her seat... etc., etc., etc.

During primary season in 2008, with full knowledge of all of the above, Governor Patrick recorded this infamous robo-call endorsement of Wilkerson. Now there's a clear message!

It was not until federal corruption charges and widely-circulated photographs of the esteemed Senator stuffing wads of cash into her undergarments in a Beacon Hill eatery became public that she lost her long-standing support amongst Democratic leadership and was forced, finally, to resign.

(2) Senator James Marzilli (D-LoonyTunes). Last year this sitting Senator and champion of the left groped several women in downtown Lowell, led police on a footchase and then bizarrely gave the name of a Senate colleague to his captors. He was allowed by Democratic leadership to retain both his seat and his powerful committee assignments (and the salaries that went with both), until news broke that while under indictment he had purported to represent the state Senate at a conference in Germany. The cumulative effect of that revelation and the exploding Wilkerson scandal, not his colleagues, finally forced him from office. Now there's a clear message!

(3) Sal. In January, House Democrats overwhelmingly supported Sal Dimasi's reelection as Speaker of the House, despite the fact that a close friend and associate of Dimasi had recently been indicted by the state Attorney General, charged with peddling influence with the Speaker, and the fact that an ongoing federal grand jury investigation into DiMasi and his associates was well known. Now there's a clear message!

Months later, DiMasi was - as expected - indicted, leading directly to a final push for passage of the ethics reforms that are so much in the news today. In case you missed it, DiMasi is the third straight Speaker of the Massachusetts House to be indicted. Message!

But hey, our legislature has filed a bill. That bill will force a lot of people to fill out a lot more forms before seeking to influence their government. That bill will impose some enhanced penalties on public officials caught with their hands in the till. That bill will subject more municipal meetings to the state's open meetings law (though, as the Globe notes, "they [our elected representatives] made sure the Legislature would still be exempt.").

That is all wonderful. But...

Does anyone really think that Diane Wilkerson was passed wads of dirty cash because her crooked 'donors' were not legally obliged to fill out sufficient paperwork?

Does anyone really think that Jim Marzilli went off a-gropin' of a late summer's eve because the penalties for public groppage were too lax?

Does anyone really think that Sal decided to dip his beak into a state contract because he did not fear the consequences if he were caught?

Of course not. These people did these things because they were convinced that they could get away with it. More, based on recent and repeated precedent, they were convinced that if they did not get away with it, they would be protected by Beacon Hill's wagon-circling culture.

That cultural problem is endemic. It is most decidedly a problem of deep-rooted reality, not one of perception. It will not be solved by today's bill, or by any bill.

It will be solved, eventually, by the voters.

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