DeLeo plan for ethics task force draws little interest

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BOSTON >> The hearing was already over by the time Gracemarie and Joyce Tomaselli arrived, but the Salisbury sisters wanted to weigh in on Speaker Robert DeLeo's proposed review of the state's ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws.

The Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight made quick work of the hearing for DeLeo's resolve (H 4627) Tuesday, taking testimony from one witness and adjourning in less than six minutes. The Tomasellis, frustrated by activities in their town over the years, ended up sharing their thoughts with House co-chair Rep. Peter Kocot and his staff.

Tuesday's hearing has been the only speedy aspect of DeLeo's months-long push for a comprehensive joint review by the two legislative branches and Gov. Charlie Baker's administration of myriad conflict of interest, campaign finance and disclosure, and lobbying laws and regulations on the books.

"I believe that, after almost eight years since the last review, it is once again time for us to examine all these laws and determine whether they need to be updated, strengthened or clarified to ensure that their prohibitions and restrictions are clear to the tens of thousands of state, municipal and county employees who are subject to the laws," DeLeo wrote in testimony that his chief of staff delivered to the committee.

The resolve, which failed to draw much interest despite public skepticism about government operations, would create an 11-member Task Force on Integrity in State and Local Government that would include the House and Senate chairs of the Ethics Committee, the attorney general or a designee, the chief legal counsels to the House, Senate and governor, legislators appointed by the minority leader in each branch, and outside experts.

Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, told the committee Tuesday that she served on a similar task force in 2009 and while "it wasn't that long ago ... there's always a few things that we missed along the way."

Wilmot said there "aren't a real lot" of outstanding issues on the ethics side, but suggested the task force should consider the possibility of granting the State Ethics Commission full regulatory authority, which would allow the commission additional flexibility to clear up unintended consequences in state ethics laws.

"It currently has a half of loaf, which is the ability to exclude items from the ethics laws," Wilmot said. "Even though it is formally a violation of Section 7 to buy an MBTA ticket ... or to be a foster family, those are all things that would technically be precluded but clearly weren't intended by the law."

House Minority Leader Brad Jones also raised the "unintended consequences" of the ethics laws as a possible target for the task force, if it is created, offering a hypothetical situation in which a public school teacher finds themselves in hot water because parents gave them a gift card or other gift at the end of a school year.

Jones said DeLeo's task force proposal was the topic of discussion at a number of meetings with leaders of state government and said he likes the idea.

Though "there's probably a number of perspectives on things people would like to see emphasized," Jones said he wants the task force to take a look at the House and how representatives cast their votes in the chamber.

"One thing I think should be a piece of it, and I would encourage my appointee to think about this, is the voting process in the House in terms of making sure people are voting for themselves and that people are in the building," he said. "Because ultimately, one bad actor can reflect poorly on everybody here."

Asked whether it is reasonable to expect DeLeo's resolve to advance through the Legislature during informal sessions, Jones said, "I would assume there has maybe been some discussion of it moving forward now and maybe coming back with recommendations in time for some action next legislative session."

Kocot said he is "optimistic" that the House will advance its speaker's initiative this session.

When asked about the dynamic surrounding the speaker's proposal -- a resolve filed by the most powerful legislator on Beacon Hill that sat untouched by the other branch for months and gets a hearing more than two months after formal sessions ended -- Jones suggested the timing of the proposal may have ruffled some feathers.

"I don't know if there was some concern that this was being advanced at a time when there maybe was more of a spotlight on one branch for issues going on," he said. "I would hazard a reasonably certain guess that that probably had some impact on how quickly this moved."

The speaker floated the idea of a task force in February as a federal probe into Sen. Brian Joyce and his alleged actions in the Senate to benefit his private law firm gathered steam. Joyce has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The Winthrop Democrat waited until June to file the resolve to create the task force in the hopes of giving the group six months to review applicable laws and rules on the books and to make recommendations before Christmas.

The Senate, however, balked at the scope of the probe, which leaders worried would lead to a dead end. DeLeo then openly suggested that the House and governor might have to go it alone. The Senate relented in September and ended the stalemate, clearing the way for DeLeo's resolve to forge ahead.


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