By Maggie Mulvihill, Matt Porter and Kirsten Berg
At America’s dawning, Puritan leader John Winthrop famously described the Massachusetts settlement as a “city upon a hill” – an unparalleled beacon of democracy and a model community for citizens everywhere.
“The eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said in 1630.
What those eyes have seen in the nearly 400 years since hasn’t always been pretty. The Bay State has suffered a series of stupefying ethical lapses by state leaders – from the Puritan judges who hung innocent neighbors as witches to a rising legislator caught hiding bribed cash down her bra. And there still isn’t much good to say about the state’s budgeting process and auditing functions.
But under the golden dome of the State House up on Beacon Hill, Massachusetts retains some of the civic shine that first motivated Winthrop, especially in regard to the transparency of its political financing system, its approach to redistricting and its robust lobbying disclosure rules. And so the state ranks 10th in the State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, with a grade of C and a numerical score of 74.
A history of embarrassments
Politics has always been a contact sport in this state of almost 6.6 million residents, and Massachusetts has a colorful history of corruption capers. Every decade of the 20th century stars a breed of government rogue, from the rascal politician James Michael Curley, reelected from his JAIL cell in 1904, to last year’s federal conviction of the third consecutive House Speaker for corruption.
The 1960s featured bribery convictions for state regulators as well as a judge embroiled in a bribery scandal involving the building of the Boston Common garage. Three state senators were convicted in the 1970’s of taking bribes from a construction company building the new University of Massachusetts campus in Boston. “We have learned that corruption is a way of life in Massachusetts,” stated a report from a special anti-corruption commission formed in the wake of that scandal.
In 1982, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee was convicted on federal extortion charges. The 1990’s revealed that a new band of felons, including a top state Treasury official, had over the course of several years been looting the little-supervised “unclaimed check fund” to the tune of at least $9 million.
The dawn of a new millennium brought more bad news. Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” highway project, the largest public construction endeavor in the nation’s history, led to prosecutions for uncontrolled cost overruns, false billing and shoddy work.
In 2011, disgraced state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, a Boston Democrat, was sentenced to 3.5 years for federal bribery charges, while this year state and federal investigations continue into a pay-to-play scheme within the state Probation Department.
Veteran journalists who have watched this parade of malfeasance find it hard to believe that Massachusetts ranked as high as it did in the State Integrity Investigation.
“If we are doing this well, the other states must be really bad,” said WBZ-TV political reporter Jon Keller, who has covered state politics for more than 30 years.
Corruption breeds reform
The silver lining is that these dismaying ethical breaches have also led to important reforms that helped push Massachusetts to a higher than average ranking.
A scathing report by the Ward Commission, headed by the former president of Amherst College, found the “state was for sale” throughout the 1960’s and 70’s in regard to public construction. The Massachusetts Ethics Commission and the first-in-the-nation state Inspector General’s Office were both formed on the heels of the UMass-Boston prosecutions.
In 2009, the state passed the strongest ethics reforms in decades, creating more severe penalties for transgressors and giving the ethics commission enhanced enforcement powers. The State Integrity Investigation shows Massachusetts coming in 21st out of 50 states for the accountability of its ethics mechanisms.
Massachusetts earned its highest score for the transparency of its political financing operations, a positive reflection on the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
“They do audit the efficacy of the filings. They believe in the law. They are professionals,” said one of state government’s harshest critics, Massachusetts Common Cause executive director Pam Wilmot, in support of OCPF staff.
But improvements are still needed and some political disasters, like Wilkerson’s arrest, might have been avoided. OCPF repeatedly cited Wilkerson in previous years for violating campaign finance laws by failing to file proper fundraising reports, but the office had limited authority to sanction her, Wilmot said.
The ‘bluest’ state
Massachusetts earned its lowest score for the secrecy of the state budget process, coming in 47th in the nation, the analysis showed. Some critics claim the unparalleled dominance of the Democratic party contributes to that closed-door mentality. The “bluest state” in the nation allowed the Kennedy family to hold the same Bay State congressional seat for nearly 50 years.
“We just don’t have two-party government,” said Republican state Rep. Daniel K. Webster of Pembroke.
Budget amendments are discussed by lawmakers off-the-record; even tracking the casting of votes is challenging. Veteran observers say the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick deserves some credit for providing clearer budget information, but the numbers are still extremely difficult for the average citizen to unravel.
“The state does a good job of hiding spending. It’s almost intentionally complex,” said David Tuerck, chair of Suffolk University’s Economics Department and Executive Director of the Beacon Hill Institute, an economic think-tank based in Boston.
Legislative secrecy undercuts public confidence in government, said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group or MassPIRG.
The Bay State earned a low score – ranking it 24th out of 50 states – for legislative transparency and accountability. Legislative committees meet behind closed doors, with rank-and-file members often unable to discern what happened or how members voted.
“One of the biggest shortcomings in the legislative process is that there are no recorded votes in committee,” said Cummings.
State Rep. Jamie Eldridge cites the days it took for reporters to determine how members voted on a controversial gambling bill last year after it came out of a legislative committee. “I think it’s embarrassing and a reason why the public does not have a lot of faith in the process,” said Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton.
The corner office and the courts
The Massachusetts executive branch, including the governor’s corner office on Beacon Hill, came in 15h out of 50 states in the State Integrity Investigation.
University of Massachusetts-Boston political science Professor Maurice Cunningham said Gov. Patrick generally provides reasons for his policy decisions in a variety of forums, but asserted that Patrick still falls short when it comes to public access to information.
“There is quite a bit of secrecy in state government. Recent examples include the governor, speaker and Senate president meeting privately to work out casinos legislation,” Cunningham said.
Massachusetts lawmakers voted last fall, after years of contentious debates, to legalize casinos. Governor Patrick signed the law in November.
The governor appears monthly on a local talk show, effectively uses the Internet to reach constituents and has launched the first-ever comprehensive online accounting of state spending on a website unveiled in December: “Massachusetts Open Checkbook.”
But Jon Keller, the patriarch of Massachusetts political reporters, expressed surprise at the positive score on this front, given his experience trying to wrest public records from the Patrick administration. “The fish rots from the head,” Keller said. “Deval Patrick has a lot of attributes, but thick skin is not one of them.”
The judiciary also ranked better than average for accessibility and transparency, scoring 9th out of 50 states, the analysis shows. Because judges in Massachusetts are appointed and don’t run for office as in many other states, the risk of judicial election mischief is nil. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems in the system.
Formal evaluations of sitting judges, who are appointed for life, have only been instituted in recent years and are confidential. Judges are nominated by the governor and vetted through a commission of lawyers, whom he also appointed. The governor’s council, composed of eight individuals from across the state who run for the seat, rarely opposes the nominees and has been criticized as being a judicial rubber stamp for the governor.
Court officials, despite spending millions on information technology, have failed to create a user-friendly website for citizens looking up court cases – something other states and the federal courts have had for years.
A surprisingly secret government
In 2002, federal judge Damon Keith warned that “democracies die behind closed doors.” Those doors are shut tight in Massachusetts.
The home of the nation’s first newspapers earned its second lowest ranking of all 14 categories for citizen access to public records, according to the State Integrity Investigation. Despite a proud tradition of questioning government — exemplified by the Pilgrims — and bucking government authority— as demonstrated by John Adams— the Massachusetts citizenry continues to tolerate the state’s refusal to make many records accessible.
Two of the three branches of government – the legislature and judiciary – are exempt from the state’s public records law by statute and the governor is exempted as the result of a ruling by the state’s highest court. Last year, a state attorney threatened a First Amendment activist with potential jail time after he posted on his website information about Massachusetts food stamp payments he obtained under a public records request. The threat was withdrawn once the debacle made the news.
And despite the state’s national reputation as a progressive, well-educated bastion of high-technology, most government records are still not digitized. Bills for tens of thousands of dollars for records are not unusual; a request by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting for records on juveniles charged with murder in the past 15 years prompted Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley to issue a bill of $55,000 bill to retrieve the documents.
Appeals of denials of records take months to resolve, and orders to comply with the law from the State Attorney General are rare. Sanctions for non-compliance, even in clear cases, are rarer still.
A culture of distrust
Longtime state government observers point to a deeply ingrained culture of distrust permeating state government here that dates to Colonial times, when lawmakers and colonists eyed each other warily.
Other unique factors have shaped the Bay State political scene over centuries, such as a longstanding reliance on federal prosecutors to root out state corruption.
“We have been terribly reliant on the feds to clean us up, which suggests an inability on our own part to develop adequate mechanisms for policing corruption in a meaningful way,” said Boston College Law Professor George Brown, the former head of the state Ethics Commission.
Agency heads are more worried about their relationships with powerful lawmakers than the governor’s staff, critics said. “This tradition of a strong legislature and a relatively weak governor has hurt us,” Brown said.
For that, Massachusetts voters have their ancestors to blame. The new colonists wanted distilled executive power, fearful of too much in a single leader’s hand – like the English king they had fled.
“The skepticism of centralized government is deeply ingrained in our historical roots. Part of being a Bostonian is being skeptical of the powers that be,” said Keller of WBZ-TV, author of the book “The Bluest State.”
Immigrants flooding into Massachusetts cities at the turn of the century were snubbed by the city’s powerful Brahmins; storefront windows were dotted with signs to despairing job-seekers like “No Irish Need Apply.” The immigrants fought ferociously for political power and once they earned it, took full advantage of the concept “to the victor belong the spoils.”
Nepotism, cronyism and patronage evolved into a routine form of governance, and loyalty with a vote was better than gold in Massachusetts. Robert Q. Crane, state treasurer in the 1980’s, was notorious for helping family and friends ease onto the state payroll, once boasting about how many state Lottery employees were sponsored by his fellow politicians.
Corrupt leaders are still considered lovable rogues in Massachusetts. In 2011, when three disgraced former House Speakers made a visit to the State House, they were greeted with a standing ovation from legislators whose office they dishonored. In contrast, during a recent debate on casinos, a lawmaker suggesting a five-year ban on casino employment for retired legislators was nearly screeched out of the chamber by his colleagues.
More headlines coming?
Despite some high scores for transparency, Bay State voters are bracing for more humiliation from state officials.
The state’s chief prosecutor on Cape Cod is being investigated by the same federal prosecutors who hunted down Whitey Bulger, a murderous gangster and older brother of the former Senate President William M. Bulger. Federal investigators are probing a local housing authority chief’s campaign work for Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, who himself is fending off questions about a mysterious early-morning car crash last year.
A state representative who retired a year ago when news broke that he was under investigation is awaiting trial for failing to report campaign cash. State and federal investigations continue into the patronage-riddled Probation Department.
In Massachusetts, it seems, more heads are always about to roll.
Photo credit to Sarah Kuranda