Even by the relatively forgiving standards of Massachusetts politics, these are pretty disgraceful days. House Speaker Sal DiMasi and three of his associates are under criminal and ethics investigations relating to a large software contract and favorable legislation for companies for which DiMasi's pals were allegedly lobbying. John Rogers, House majority leader, has had to pay a $30,000 fine for campaign-finance violations relating to mortgage payments on a Falmouth beach house. Former state senator Jim Marzilli is facing charges of assaulting women, and was recently caught taking a junket to Germany when he was supposedly getting treatment for mental illness. He has resigned his seat, as has former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who, after a career filled with transgressions and misdeeds, has now been charged in federal court with extortion.
The latest to join this list of scandal-plagued elected officials is City Councilor Chuck Turner, arrested last week and accused of accepting a $1000 bribe in connection with the Wilkerson investigation.
Our political officeholders — those who are suspected of some sort of wrongdoing, and those who have enabled or excused them — seem to have lost their common sense.
Their problems are threatening to stall the workings of local and state government — not because those already accused have been taken out of the game, but because so many other politicians are now frozen in fear and uncertainty over what these investigations will uncover.
This is no time for a leadership vacuum in the state legislature. We have very serious challenges to address, and significant recent turnover has produced a promising but inexperienced batch of officeholders. When the new legislative session begins in January, a quarter of all the state representatives, and nearly a quarter of the state senators, will have been in office for two years or less.
We need serious action and strong leadership — and a public trust that is unlikely to be given while so many questions remain unanswered. It would be nice to see our public officials demanding those answers — but that requires political courage, a quality clearly in low supply.
Which is why, for example, DiMasi can brush off the Ethics Commission's demands for documents — not to mention demands for explanations from the general public. Apparently DiMasi can thumb his nose at transparency and accountability, and still not fear losing his Speakership. This is both outrageous and pathetic.
To be fair, our elected officials find themselves in a thorny position. The Wilkerson and DiMasi scandals are now criminal investigations — both federal and state prosecutors are reportedly looking into dealings of DiMasi and his friends, while Wilkerson and Turner have been charged in federal court. That means subpoenas and serious consequences are involved. It also means that other officeholders honestly don't know what else those investigations might turn up.
It's not just the targeted individuals who are worried, though. Perfectly innocent officials are wondering how their actions will look if scrutinized in the wrong light. Others are afraid to be caught too close to the next person charged. As elected officials hunker down and wait to find out what will happen, how can any business get done?
The House is the most potentially vulnerable. DiMasi appears nearly certain to win re-election as Speaker in January — because his colleagues don't feel that they have enough evidence to act against him. But few will want to be standing near him if and when he goes down.
House members who have been waiting for years to move John Rogers into power now find themselves having to back away from him, as the scandal surrounding his Falmouth property refuses to go away. Some who have backed Robert DeLeo now wonder whether, as chair of House Ways and Means Committee, he might end up dragged into the DiMasi mess. Other leaders in the House are potentially tinged. Lida Harkins's name has come up in the software scandal, and Byron Rushing's in the Wilkerson charges.
Nobody knows who it's safe to be connected to in the Senate, either.
City Hall is likewise full of scared mice — including City Council President Maureen Feeney, who stripped Turner's committee assignments but won't consider expulsion — all wondering what else the Wilkerson scandal will uncover.
You would think that our local political culture would be better prepared to respond to scandal. DiMasi, after all, follows two House Speakers — Tom Finneran and Charles Flaherty — who both left office under a cloud of indictments to which they later pleaded guilty.
Human behavior being what it is, we don't expect that all officeholders will sidestep temptations in their paths. What we can hope for is that our government systems are reasonably transparent, and that there are functioning accountability mechanisms in place.
Most important, we need to believe that a culture of integrity exists, and is taken seriously.