Friday, November 28, 2008

BRIBERY: The grimy side of politics

THE ARREST Tuesday of state Senator Dianne Wilkerson on public corruption charges echoed not only in the far corners of the State House and City Hall but in homes across the state, where voters suspect that elected officials put their own interests ahead of the public's well-being.

The FBI recorded Wilkerson allegedly accepting cash bribes to secure a liquor license and grease the skids for a development project in her district. But it was not just the florid details of Wilkerson allegedly stuffing money into her bra that shocked people. Almost as disturbing was the glimpse behind the curtain where political relationships unfold.

In the FBI affidavit, Wilkerson tells a confidential witness that the formal proceedings of the Boston Licensing Board, which issues liquor licenses, are mere "smoke and mirrors." She could be blowing smoke herself. But if not, what does it say about the people reflected in the mirror - including state Senator Michael Morrissey, City Council President Maureen Feeney, and Boston Licensing Board Chair Daniel Pokaski, all in attendance at an August 2007 meeting orchestrated by Wilkerson to expand the number of liquor licenses? Later, Wilkerson would boast to an undercover agent that four of the 40 new licenses "are mine."

Interceding on behalf of a constituent is a normal role for a legislator. But it can lead to harmful trading of votes and influence. "You roll my log, I'll roll yours" could be the motto of the Massachusetts State House. And Wilkerson, the state's highest-ranking minority legislator, came with an added twist. Doing her bidding became synonymous with showing respect to Boston's minority neighborhoods. And she played her colleagues at every turn.

Even on Beacon Hill, there is a limit to collegiality. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution Thursday asking Wilkerson to resign. At first defiant, Wilkerson said Friday that she would decide after Election Day whether to resign.

Ideal conditions
Corruption thrives most easily in areas where power is mostly concentrated in the hands of a single individual, free of transparent management controls. That's where federal agents will probe the hardest. The role of Pokaski, the go-to guy for a liquor license in Boston, needs greater scrutiny. Wilkerson, according to the affidavit, threatened to block a pay raise for him and other licensing board members if they didn't produce a liquor license for her patron. In Boston, where a two-person watchdog Finance Commission tries to keep track of tens of thousands of contracts and employees, corruption can strike without warning.

The Wilkerson arrest also raises questions of additional involvement by elected officials. In the affidavit, a Wilkerson associate tells undercover agents posing as developers that unnamed state representatives and a city councilor in Boston must also be paid off. How far the corruption has spread remains a matter of speculation. But Wilkerson's arrest does cast suspicion on other developments she backed aggressively, ranging from the state hospital redevelopment site in Mattapan to the Columbus Center air rights project over the Massachusetts Turnpike in the South End.

Potentially tainted projects are only part of the problem. How many solid construction and business proposals never come about because would-be developers want no part of shakedowns?

Bribery may be the most obvious form of public corruption. But just as murder is rare enough that it tells scholars little about the severity of crime overall, outright bribery doesn't necessarily give the best insight into how corruption affects the body politic in Massachusetts. To restore public trust, federal agents should also probe more baroque approaches to public corruption. The old "don't pay me, pay my friends" ploy, along with the rigging of the public bid process to favor politically wired contractors, undermines the political system just as bribery does.

Restore public confidence
There is plenty to investigate. State Inspector General Gregory Sullivan has reported that three men close to House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi received $1.8 million in what Sullivan described as unreported lobbying fees from a software company seeking business with the state. One of the men, DiMasi's personal accountant, also provided the speaker with an unusual $250,000 third mortgage. The speaker denies any hand in the software contract.

On Friday, Governor Patrick announced he will convene a new task force on ethics. It may not be enough, however, to satisfy some voters, whose frustration could boil into support for Question 1, a destructive measure to eliminate the state income tax.

Federal law forbids public officials from knowingly engaging in schemes that deprive the public of "fair and honest services." Right about now in Massachusetts, much of the public is feeling ethically deprived.
The grimy side of politics
Boston Globe (registration), United States