Thoughts on the DiMasi indictment

Well, we knew that his hands weren't exactly clean, and that he was too close to some folks that were pretty plainly trying to buy some influence. And we knew there was something fishy with the Cognos deal.

This is what I wrote back in January:

Look, if there were someone who was clean and progressive in the running for Speaker, I suspect most people here would have been willing to throw DiMasi overboard pretty quickly. As it stands, we're likely to get an ethically-compromised, special interest shill one way or the other — everything bad about DiMasi, without the progressive vision.

I would like to amend that. Neither John Rogers nor Bob DeLeo have ever been stained by this sort of corruption. Special interest influence and insider deals are commonplace; this is really something different. 

The top-down power wielded by the Speaker makes resisting his will very difficult indeed. Just as DiMasi prevailed in the Speaker vote in January, he apparently leaned on legislators — and the administration! — to do his bidding:

The speaker asked a lawmaker, Representative Robert Coughlin, to file an amendment with specific language, and he did, according to the indictment. The rest of the House and the Senate went along. DiMasi and his staff pressured administration officials to award computer contracts to a specific vendor that was paying tens of thousands of dollars to DiMasi – Cognos ULC – and the administration eventually complied, the indictment said.

Sal DiMasi is indeed a tragic figure. He was the progressive hero: the author of health care and same-sex marriage in our Commonwealth. He is also said to be a legislative crook of the lowest kind — not just a bribe-taker, but a bribe-demander.

Hero? Crook? Allegedly, both.

There are a lot of barbs being tossed around the comments, to the effect that some folks "overlooked" the signs of corruption for the sake of progressive causes. I don't really think it's productive for us to blame each other for the deeds of someone else. No agenda, no degree of heroism or courage in one area can justify criminality (or even garden-variety conflict-of-interest hackery) in another. I think we can all agree on that.

We can blame the one-party state for this kind of corruption; we can blame the top-down structure of power; we can blame complacency on behalf of elected officials in no risk of defeat. Maybe.

But what's needed in the legislature right now is a cultural shift, one predicated on the internal temperaments and values of the individuals themselves. The real fear of electoral defeat or prosecution are always salient; but at some level, people in office are going to have to do the right thing because the better angels of their nature tell them to do so. Perhaps the shock of the DiMasi affair will awaken those sentiments.

The ethics bill would be a good start on a clean conscience for the legislature. Now would certainly be a good time to bring the Ethics Commission back from life-support.

And if not … well, maybe no one is damned, because everyone is damned.

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  1. For the record...

    My thoughts...

    http://sacredcods.wordpress.com/

  2. One question

    Is it clear to what degree (if any) prominent Massachusetts Republican would-be savior, US Attorney Sullivan is involved with this?

    sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
    • That didn't take long, did it?

      Is it clear to what degree (if any) prominent Massachusetts Republican would-be savior, US Attorney Sullivan is involved with this?

      No matter what crime is committed, blame the other guy. How very progressive of you.  

      • calm down...

        Is it clear to what degree (if any) prominent Massachusetts Republican would-be savior, US Attorney Sullivan is involved with this?
        No matter what crime is committed, blame the other guy. How very progressive of you.  

        I'm not certain what you mean by this.  I thought Sabutai was asking if Sullivan was invoved in the investigation/indictment...  Which, if I'm not mistaken, is a job US attys' regularly perform.  Not that Sullivan was crooked... Is that what you're saying?

        Listening to NPR this AM, a gentlemen (whose name I missed, sorry) made an extremely salient point: to wit, that since the state house (specifically the ethics committee) is extraordinarily toothless and the speaker is extraordinarily powerful, any checks and balances functionality must be performed by the Fed... which, it appears, is exactly what is happening.

        • The implication seemed to be that this was a partisan prosecution.

          As opposed to a racist prosecution, which is what happened when Wilkerson was busted.

          Of course, Sullivan is gone now.  It will be harder to make these 'points' about partisanship when Obama appoints the next Attorney (sort of like the way there are no more Welducci Swomney cuts any more now that there is a single party structure of government).

          If that's not why you asked, Sabutai, I apologize for misreading your point.

          • Geez

            No wonder Republicans think everything is going fine...with all the non-existent voices they all here, it seems that the party is full.

            I never mentioned Wilkerson.  She was guilty as h--l as far as I could see.  And any Republican who sits in askance of questioning of their even-handed use of the justice apparatus in the wake of the Bush US Attorney scandal is fooling themselves.  If Sullivan is an even-handed Republican US Attorney, it's only because he slipped by Cheney's operation.

            The fact that Sullivan is gone tells me all I need to know.  Thanks.

            sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
  3. Perhaps if we see these crimes

    aggressively and publicly prosecuted, it would stop any future corrupt behavior by public officials.  It would also give the citizens of the state a sense that someone is watching for corruption, and that it will not be tolerated. Maybe that would be the first step toward winning back the trust that has been lost.

  4. Better angels?

    But what's needed in the legislature right now is a cultural shift, one predicated on the internal temperaments and values of the individuals themselves. The real fear of electoral defeat or prosecution are always salient; but at some level, people in office are going to have to do the right thing because the better angels of their nature tell them to do so.

    I disagree with this approach, Charley. It's the approach that asks health insurers to contain costs voluntarily, or power plants to reduce emissions voluntarily, without binding regulations. The important thing is to structure the legislators' incentives so that there is an incentive for honest government. Madison said it best:

    Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

    I think the US Attorney is stepping into a vacuum to provide at least some incentive for honesty. But it would be much better to have institutional incentives in place to prevent dishonesty in government than to rely on criminal prosecution after the fact.

    TedF

    • $quot;institutional incentives in place to prevent dishonesty in government$quot;

      Well, we have some of those.  They are called "laws against bribery and other forms of corruption."  What else did you have in mind?

      • Good-government and open-government laws

        Moving more records, budgets, bills, etc, online. In a real, functional way, not in a State House website from 1997 way.

        The more people can see into the process, the cleaner the process will become.

        • Actually,

          the budget tools that the Gov's office has put up have been outstanding, IMHO.  There's work to be done with other legislation, and there's still no good way of tracking it, but that's unfortunately in the legislature's domain, and they have shown zero interest.  At least they got the budget amendments online this year.  That was something.

      • David, what I have in mind, just for starters:

        1.  All open meetings laws should also apply to the House, the Senate, the Governor's office, and the Secretaries and Commissioners of each executive agency.  Hint:  as of today none of the open meetings laws that apply to, say, Somerville apply to the House, the Senate, the secretary of [fill in the agency].  Laws were passed exempting all of the House, Senate, etc.

        2.  All freedom of information laws should also apply to the House, the Senate, the Governor's office, and the Secretaries and Commissioners of each executive agency.  Hint:  as of today none of the open meetings laws that apply to, say, Somerville apply to the House, the Senate, the secretary of [fill in the agency].

        3.  Bring back cable video coverage of ALL sessions and ALL major hearings without exception.

        Do you think this whole tawdry mess could have happened, and who knows how much more sneaking about, if every meeting and every date book was public?  Oh, and all meetings including those in Room 348 were on video?

        • To your last question,

          yes, of course it would have.  

          Which is not to say I don't agree with your proposals -- I do.  It's absurd that the legislature is not subject to public records laws, and getting rid of the TV coverage was a terrible idea.

          But let's not pretend that these changes, as beneficial as they would be, will root out corruption in any meaningful way.  They won't -- what they will do is help people get more involved with their government, and that's a good thing that in the long run will help clean things up.

          • Not so much $quot;root out$quot; as make it that much harder to hide

            The idea, again, is to have as much occur in the open as possible.  There is, at present, almost no decision making that happens in view of the public, and consequently, corruption is easier to hide and it appears, more prevalent.

            An analogy would be the house cleaner's principle that any hidden place is more likely to become filthy.  My own nastiest example is that when we finally moved my son's heavy computer desk as part of cleaning his room we found a dessicated mouse.  Because the space could not be seen, a small animal crawled into that space and died.

            Because the majority of arm twisting done in the house happens out of sigh and out of hearing in room 348, it is harder to stand tall, and easier to have a Speaker be so sure they can get their way.

            I remember when there were actual debates and floor fights, not merely grandstanding so a State House News Reporter would get sound bites for the folks back home.

            So David - I agree my rather mundane but specific proposals would not totally prevent "the fix being in" but collectively, more would be in the open and it would be harder to hide strong arm tactics AND easier to work for change, including citizen activists being better able to monnitor what is going on, who is saying what, who is seeing whom.

      • Another center of power

        Well, as my reference to Madison suggests, I think it's important to have a competing center of power in the state government and ideally in the legislature, so that the Speaker's will is not the law. One approach is the one you have suggested elsewhere, namely, campaign finance reform to make it easier to challenge incumbents (and presumably, to elect Republicans or Democrats willing to hold the leadership to account). Another approach, as suggested elsewhere in the thread, is increased application of the Public Records Law and the open meetings law to the legislature.

        TedF

  5. Vote against our interests?

    We can blame the one-party state for this kind of corruption; [maybe?]

    Which parts of the state should vote against their own interests and elect someone who does not represent them?

    I would put your quote a little differently -- I'd say "we can blame the lack of electoral competition for this kind of corruption". We don't need to elect more Republicans to stop corruption -- we need to have competitive races so that the people in office know that they are being watched and evaluated, and if they even think about straying from serving the public good before their own interests, they will be easily thrown out of office.  

  6. on chickens

    The real problem is the amazing degree of parochialism and lack of broader ambition or vision amongst many (most?) members of the august General Court.  Due to a lot of factors (the pay, the existing culture, etc.), your typical state rep is a local courthouse-gang lawyer (with a heavily CPCS Private Counsel workload), insurance or real estate broker, etc.  Their fame is often due in part to high school sports exploits.  Those with ambition seek to move up promptly, and the best way to do that is keep their heads down.  Don't expect much courage from these people.  The rest, a majority, are happy with their jobs, their stipends, their per diems, their esteem in the town, etc.  These aren't people going to lectures on political theory at the Kennedy School.  As a wise man once said, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit.

  7. Perhaps it's time for a Constitutional Amendment to limit the power of the Speaker

    I don't know all the details but it seems to me that the speaker has far too much power and the only way to place permanent limits on that power is to amend the constitution. Given the current climate, perhaps this is the time to start something like this.

    As I understand it the speaker controls everything from parking assignments to committee assignments and this seems to go against the one man one vote principle. Perhaps we need to put language in the constitution to limit this power. I don't know how that particular language would look but I would start with the following goals in mind:

    Logistics and logistical support (office assignments, parking assignments, staff allocations, etc.) should be done by a non-political civil servant based on objective criteria. The criteria can be decided by the members as a whole, but the implementation should be controlled by a non-political professional.

    Committee assignments should be decided by lot among those members interested at the start of the session (every 2 years).

    Committee Chairs and vice-chairs should be elected by the members of the particular committee.

    The Speaker and Committee Chairs would be in charge of the agendas for their particular body, but agenda items could be added by a significant minority of the members of that body (say if 30% of the members want to consider something then it should be on the agenda regardless of the chairs opinion).

    Perhaps there are some good examples from other states or countries. There has to be some form better than the current system.

    • perhaps it's time to redo the entire constitution...

      ... not just an amendment, but a wholesale, ground up, rebuilding...

    • good ideas

      But I almost feel like going the other way: a unicameral system with the speaker as a quasi-Prime Minister.  Right now, the speaker and Sen Pres are completely in charge of the state.  The governorship is almost a distraction for the masses.  Our D governor is no more efficacious than his R predecessors, and he possibly gets even less respect.  But because of the less-than-transparent way that these legislative leaders operate and get elected, they face no accountability for their actions.  

      This is further heightened by the way they repeatedly point the finger at each other to explain why something isn't happening ("we passed ethics reform' it's stuck in the House" ... "we tried transport reform, but the Senate won't act on it.")  The cynic in me thinks this is prearranged Kabuki to stall any progress on reform.  But I digress.

      At least if you had a quasi-parliamentary system, voters might face up to this reality.  Sure, you like your state rep, and he financed your mortgage / got your nephew out of an OUI / led your high school to a Division II-AA basketball championship... but you have to face up to the fact that when you pull the lever for him, you're putting Sal DiMasi (or whoever) in charge of Massachusetts.  Maybe you'd keep voting for him and maybe you won't.  But at least some people might stop repeatedly voting for the same people and then calling Howie Carr to bitch about Beacon Hill.

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