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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Appearance counts

House Speaker Sal DiMasi has a heck of an appearance problem on his hands.

On the same day the Speaker launches a vigorous public defense of what is becoming an increasingly embattled rule, the Globe obtains e-mails that seem to seriously undercut his argument that he had no role in awarding a software contract to a firm (with the involvement of lobbyists) which have ties to him.

Let's leave aside the question of how the Globe could obtain e-mails the Ethics Commission wants but can't get. What you have here is a picture of a politician saying one thing while apparent "evidence" suggests something entirely different.

DiMasi has long denied he had anything to do with the awarding of a contract to Cognos LLC, a Burlington-based software company who retained people with ties to the Speaker as they pursued the pact. The e-mail exchanges in which his name is mentioned on several occasions suggest that while he may not have played a direct role, his presence was clearly felt.

The Globe acknowledges a crucial fact:
While a batch of Department of Education e-mails obtained by the Globe fall short of saying that DiMasi specifically pushed for the controversial Cognos contract, they do indicate a level of involvement that the speaker has never publicly acknowledged.
While I'm not a lawyer, I think the distinction is only marginally significant under state ethics laws, which forbid both a conflict-of-interest and an appearance of a conflict-of-interest.

And boy things really don't appear too good -- particularly in light of the e-mails.

DiMasi could help clear things up in a heartbeat if he provided the commission with the documents it has subpoenaed. But he has only compounded the appearance problem by citing the state constitution as protecting those materials from disclosure.

North Adams Democrat Dan Bosley offered a spirited defense of DiMasi's position here a few days ago, acknowledging that there are both legal and public relations issues involved here.
Elected officials never win the public relations battle because the idea that something is wrong has already been planted. We know this and realize that we lose the perception issue because it can not be the main element when trying to decide the correct public policy.
But Bosley makes the argument that what is said in the creation of policy deserves protection because the potential for disclosure who limit the freedom of people to offer frank advice.
Once we start to waive that public protection, we can't then use it on other occasions. It doesn't apply to one company or conversation, but to all of our deliberations in our offices or with our colleagues.
And he raises the question of the use of leaks to push for compliance.
While we obviously take our ethics laws very seriously, there are apparently those in the Ethics Commission that are less than rigorous in following their own laws. These deliberations are supposed to be private in order to protect all parties until there is a final decision in these cases.
But in this case the leaks are from the agency that is a party to the investigation, not the investigators.

DiMasi is in a major league bind. While I would give a layman's assent to the idea that public officials need some form of protection in order to frankly discuss policy issues, I see a huge PR nightmare, particularly now with the e-mails.

The problem is enveloping DiMasi's House colleagues, who face endless jockeying between Ways and Means Chairman Robert DeLeo and Majority Leader John Rogers (not without his own appearance problems) over who will succeed him if the problems prove insurmountable.

But the ultimate losers here are you and me, the taxpayers. Massachusetts is facing major league budget and revenue problems. We deserve the undivided attention of our elected officials.

Gov. Deval Patrick has repeatedly addressed the rumors that he plans to slip out for a job in the Obama administration. DiMasi needs to do something to address the rumors and innuendo swirling around him.

Bosley is correct that public officials can't really reclaim their reputations, once tarnished. But it seems DiMasi isn't helping his own cause.

And unless he does, this growing mess is only going to hamper state efforts to cope with the downturn and heap even more mud on his name.

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