Our leaders and officials should model accountability — especially those in the office of district attorney. Sometimes, though, accountability requires a thorough accounting, and at the moment that’s not possible for the vehicle policies of DA offices across the commonwealth.
Six Massachusetts district attorneys — including Berkshire DA Andrea Harrington — lease cars through their offices, driving them for work and personal use. The payments on those leases are covered by Bay State taxpayers. While Massachusetts over the years has cut down on the use of take-home vehicles for state employees, the commonwealth’s elected district attorneys are not subject to the tightened rules on take-home vehicles. Our county’s district attorney is far from alone in this policy practiced by more than half of Massachusetts’ DA offices, not to mention Ms. Harrington’s two predecessors.
The commonwealth’s district attorneys’ salaries are set by the Legislature, and they currently earn $191,000 per year. The value of a leased vehicle is also earned income, according to the Internal Revenue Service. District attorneys who lease vehicles on the state’s dime must reimburse the state for their personal use of these cars and pay taxes based on that value. The public deserves to know how that value is calculated and whether it has been done accurately, but the information on personal usage of these leased vehicles is not readily available. The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office did not respond to an Eagle reporter’s questions about Ms. Harrington’s use of a leased vehicle.
The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office pays $677.57 a month to lease Ms. Harrington’s 2019 Ford Edge. This is a drop in the bucket of state expenditures, but there is a problem of principle here: Has the county’s chief law enforcement officer given herself a salary increase to which she is not entitled? This reasonable question cannot be answered until the district attorney is more forthcoming with the transparency that she promised upon her election.
We are not saying that these district attorneys should not be compensated for their travel, but it is rich that only the elected district attorney gets a state-funded leased vehicle in addition to their rather generous salaries. According to the Pioneer Institute, Ms. Harrington earns more than three times the average employee in her office, all of whom presumably use their personal cars for work connected travel. Ms. Harrington is entitled to receive the same compensation as her employees receive for the use of their personal vehicles.
A system so vulnerable to obscured abuse of taxpayers’ money must be addressed and improved. The lack of oversight on this spending leaves more unanswered questions regarding other costs incurred by use of the leased vehicles — maintenance and insurance, for instance, which typically fall on the lessee — that could be impacting public coffers beyond the monthly lease payments.
While vehicle leasing by district attorney offices has not been examined by recent audits, state Auditor Suzanne M. Bump told The Eagle that “it could be at a later time.” Meanwhile, the comptroller’s records access officer Parris Kyriakakis responded to The Eagle’s inquiries on oversight by saying the state might force more detailed lease reporting in the future. His predecessor, Thomas Shack has said that “We owe it to the people of Massachusetts to examine and reexamine the use of vehicles by state employees.” On all fronts, a clearer accounting of the use of taxpayer funds by DA offices must come sooner rather than later.
The Legislature can also help here, too. Lawmakers should act swiftly and prudently to make constitutional officers within the state’s executive branch subject to the tighter rules that other executive employees have faced since 2016 when Gov. Charlie Baker sought to reform the state’s take-home vehicle policies after they drew bipartisan criticism. It is painfully ironic that district attorneys, the chief law enforcement officers for their respective regions, are the ones who get to stretch these rules.
The state’s elected DAs should welcome and proactively agitate for this reform as a chance to model the accountability they must embody to faithfully perform their sworn duty.