The Boston Globe - February 12, 2009
By Sean P. Murphy
After two years, multiple hearings, and hundreds of hours of legal and investigative work, the State Ethics Commission ruled in a decision released yesterday that former Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello violated ethics laws.
All told, the case cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars to prosecute.
But it will cost Amorello only $2,000, the maximum allowable under laws not updated in more than a generation.
Cases like this one have some lawmakers calling for an increase in the maximum fines for ethics violations to as much as $10,000 per violation.
"There's no question the law needs updating," said Senator Michael R. Knapik, Republican of Westfield. "People are really upset about what's happening on Beacon Hill. The ethical lapses have really hit home with people."
Knapik is a member of 13-member task force appointed by Governor Deval Patrick last fall to recommend changes in the state's ethics laws.
One of the central recommendations made by the bipartisan panel was an increase in the maximum penalty, from $2,000 to $10,000 per violation.
"With fines as low as they are, they are viewed by some as a cost of doing business, instead of an effective deterrent to misconduct," said Senator Benjamin B. Downing, Democrat of Pittsfield. "It's important to sent a message that this conduct will not be tolerated."
Another member of the panel - Andrew Tarsy, a senior executive with Facing History and Ourselves, an education group that promotes diversity - said, "You can't legislate morality, but the penalties should be as serious as the issue of trust in government."
The panel was chaired by Ben Clements, Patrick's chief legal counsel.
Amorello led the Turnpike Authority, which had oversight of the Big Dig, for about five years, before being forced out by Governor Mitt Romney in 2006 after a portion of a Big Dig tunnel ceiling collapsed, killing a woman who was a passenger in a car in the tunnel.
After it became apparent Amorello would be forced out of his position in July 2006, the agency made a flurry of policy changes, with Amorello's input, that granted departing employees large reimbursements for unused sick time, the Ethics Commission concluded.
As a result, Amorello was eligible for as much as $73,000 in extra pay.
Amorello did not take the money when he resigned, but left it "in the custody" of the Turnpike Authority, leaving open the possibility he would claim it later, the commission found.
Amorello, who had been accused of using his official position to gain unwarranted privileges and of creating the appearance that he could be unduly influenced in the performance of his official duties, violated the conflict-of-interest law by participating in those policy-making decisions while knowing that he had a financial interest, the commission found.
The commission said that Amorello committed no other violations.
In an interview yesterday, Amorello said that he "technically" violated ethics laws, but that the overall finding of the commission "vindicated him."
"I didn't feather my own nest, and I did not take care of my pals," he said.
Amorello said he would not contest the charges any further and would pay the $2,000 fine.
"I am happy to get this behind me and to move on," he said.