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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

No laughing matter

Chuck Turner. Dianne Wilkerson. Richard Vitale. Cognos LLC. John Rogers. Robert Spellane. Sal DiMasi. I'm having a hard time remembering the last time Massachusetts politics was awash in so many questions about unethical or illegal behavior.

The arrest of Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner on bribery and corruption charges -- coming on the heels of the arrest and subsequent resignation of Wilkerson and the continuing questions about the friends of House Speaker DiMasi -- represent the worst crisis of confidence in government since the days of the MBM scandal.

And it will require a Ward Commission-type inquiry to even begin to attempt restoring public confidence.

Now is the place for the usual caveat about innocent until proven guilty. A closer reading of the Turner affidavit (PDF) in particular raises questions about how solid the FBI case is and whether Turner was entrapped. The figurative jury is still out on the Vitale-Cognos-DiMasi nexus. Ditto for anything substantive involving Rogers and a mortgage for a Cape Cod house.

But all of these questions -- on top of former Sen. Jim Marzilli's legal problems allegedly related to bipolar disorder -- has put a cloud over City Hall and the Statehouse that won't go away anytime soon. Perception becomes reality and right now the perception is awful.

Let's start with Legislature, where the slow drip of stories about DiMasi and the financial dealings of his friends have weakened the speaker to the point where his underlings are openly jockeying to replace him despite his constant insistence he isn't going anywhere.

DiMasi has compounded the appearance problem by declining to answer Ethics Commission inquiries. While there may well be a valid legal basis to his claim, the appearance adds to the distrust. As does his claim that Massachusetts has some of the toughest ethics laws already.

Over at City Hall, the problem is the City Council is viewed as more or less a toothless joke. Limited in power by the city charter and up against a mayor with no interest in criticism (or a new job), the city is run on the force of personality -- and a lack of new ideas.

It is time for a serious new look at ethics. Not just the panel created by Gov. Deval Patrick, but something deeper.

I've been a firm believer that we do have terms limits -- known as elections. But when, in the case of the city, you have a powerful mayor with strong fund-raising skills and a neutered council, it might be time to consider some form of term limits. Ditto for legislative leaders.

The Patrick panel can also help with a proposal to give the Ethics Commission the one tool it really needs to fulfill DiMasi's contention -- subpoena power.

The silly pictures of Wilkerson and her wardrobe adjustment and Turner's overexposed alleged bribe acceptance are anything but funny. They represent deep problems that finally need to be addressed. Seriously.

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