Boston Globe: Senate Slow to Join Ethics Push

“I think there’s a recognition that we need to do something, and there’s general support for the governor’s package,” said Senator Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton.

Eldridge will push for the ethics legislation to ban lobbyists from raising money for politicians. He also wants state contractors with more than $50,000 in business from the state to be prohibited from raising money.

By Matt Viser
3/27/09

Two months after Governor Deval Patrick demanded swift action, and even as the House last night approved a bill of its own, the Senate still has not made visible moves to join the cause of ethics reform on Beacon Hill.

The pace in the Senate stands out, considering the chamber was the epicenter of the biggest scandal to rock state government last year: federal bribery charges leveled at state Senator Dianne Wilkerson and her subsequent resignation. She has been indicted by a grand jury and has pleaded not guilty.

Senators have been focused this week on a transportation overhaul and are gearing up for a debate on pension reforms next week. Senate President Therese Murray has declined to comment on joining Patrick and the House in changing state ethics laws, and has not made it a major priority in public remarks.

Murray declined a request for an interview yesterday and would not comment aside from a statement released through her spokesman, David Falcone, who said she “has been focused on the Senate’s transportation reform legislation and looks forward to continuing the reform agenda with The 153-0 House approval last night gave Speaker Robert A. DeLeo his first legislative victory since he succeeded Salvatore F. DiMasi, who resigned in January amid an influence-peddling controversy involving his close friends.

Yet, in the sort of internecine twists that can carry great weight in the Legislature, top senators were miffed this week that DeLeo outlined his proposal before negotiating a consensus package with the Senate.

“We’re trying to spend more time to determine the best bill we can pass,” said Frederick Berry, the majority leader, who is also chairman of the Senate Committee on Ethics and Rules.

Berry would not say what specific concerns senators have expressed about the governor’s bill or what the objections with the House version are. The Senate, which spent several hours Wednesday approving a transportation reform package, met for only six minutes yesterday.

“I don’t know that anybody has focused on it,” said Senator Michael Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat. “We’ve spent the last two weeks on transportation. I’m sure that we’ll concentrate on it, but I don’t know that there’s been any kind of agreement.”

Still, several senators said ethics reform remains a priority.

“Most people recognize that there are laws that need to be strengthened and updated on the books,” said Richard Tisei, a Republican from Wakefield and the Senate minority leader. “If anything, the Senate is where we had a lot of distraction last session regarding ethics. There’s an appetite to change that.”

“I think there’s a recognition that we need to do something, and there’s general support for the governor’s package,” said Senator Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton..

Eldridge will push for the ethics legislation to ban lobbyists from raising money for politicians. He also wants state contractors with more than $50,000 in business from the state to be prohibited from raising money.

“This issue must be taken up soon, and it must be comprehensive,” said Senator Mark C. Montigny, a Democrat from New Bedford. “There shouldn’t be any interest in the Legislature to weaken what the governor has done. If anything we should strengthen it. I remain optimistic that the Senate will do that.”

Patrick first filed ethics legislation two months ago, and DeLeo followed this week with a package of ethics reforms that included increasing penalties for ethics violations and granting subpoena power to the secretary of state. The House bill would crack down on lobbyists who fail to report their income, and it would broaden the definition of lobbying to include “strategizing” or “planning.” House lawmakers yesterday unanimously approved a Republican-backed amendment to prohibit lawmakers from using campaign accounts to pay ethics fines.

DeLeo has rejected Patrick’s proposal to give the attorney general’s office wiretapping authority in public corruption cases, but the House included a provision in its bill to study its own proposal.