Boston – The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday passed unanimously a wide-ranging and ambitious ethics reform package that strengthens the integrity of the political process by closing loopholes to capture all “lobbyists,” wiping out lobbyist campaign contributions, and reducing the maximum annual contribution to political parties.
As former chair of the Senate Committee on Ethics and Rules and a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Public Integrity, Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D – Pittsfield) played a lead role during the Senate’s debate.
“The people of the Commonwealth deserve the comfort of knowing we are holding ourselves and all public servants to the highest standards possible. By passing this reform, we make it clear that as we chart these troubling waters, the decisions we make will be made with the public interest in mind and not some special interest,” said Downing.
Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said the intention of the bill is to increase transparency, clarity and consistency in state government.
“We do this by reforming lobbying, campaign finance and ethics laws,” President Murray said. “Many of these improvements were made in response to concerns of inappropriate access to elected officials by certain people. With this bill, we protect access to government, but make it clear that a lobbyist is a lobbyist.”
The Senate bill clarifies the definition of “lobbyist” as anyone paid to advocate for a third party and requires strict performance rules for lobbyists including registration with the Secretary of State, annual training, detailed reporting and official identification. Furthermore, the legislation prohibits lobbyists from making campaign contributions and also reduces the maximum annual contribution to a political party by a committee or individual from $5,000 to $500.
In order to protect every citizen’s right to access state government, the legislation creates the category of “specialist” for any employee advocating less than 50 hours in a six-month period for the company or organization for which they work. Additionally, there is a registration and reporting exemption in the specialist category for non-profits and individuals who engage in advocacy for less than 15 hours in a six-month period.
The Senate ethics reform bill, unlike any other currently filed, makes significant reforms in campaign financing. In addition to bringing down the so-called 71st Fund’s maximum contributions and banning lobbyist campaign contributions, the bill also requires transparency for electioneering communications, more commonly known as “Swift Boat” advertising.
Under this provision, all third-parties who produce mailings and ads that either support or criticize a candidate or campaign must disclose their expenditures and sources of funding.
The Senate bill also makes an important distinction between “gift” and “bribery”. While the legislation does not ban gifts outright because of constitutional considerations, it maintains that an elected official accepting a gift in exchange for a particular action is illegal and increases the penalty for bribery convictions up to 10 years imprisonment, a $100,000 fine, or both.
In an effort to improve fairness and transparency, the Senate legislation expands the adjudicatory process for alleged ethics violations to include the Division of Administrative Law Appeals (DALA) under the Executive Office for Administration and Finance.
Currently, the state Ethics Commission investigates, prosecutes and acts as fact-finder in civil ethics cases. Under the Senate bill, the Ethics Commission can refer a case to DALA, which in turn would make a recommendation for settlement or punishment. The Ethics Commission, however, still determines the remedy to be imposed.
The involvement of DALA’s experts in adjudication is meant to ensure that due process is served by avoiding a singular, isolated investigation and hearing.
The Senate bill also adopts existing reform proposals, and increases penalties, including:
- Giving the Secretary of State subpoena power, with judicial consent;
- Expanding revolving door restrictions on lobbying to the executive branch;
- Increasing late filing penalties for lobbyists to $50 per day for first 20 days and $100 per day thereafter;
- Increasing criminal penalties for lobbyist registration violations to 5 years imprisonment, $10,000 fine, or both;
- Increasing penalties for late-filed campaign reports from $10 per day and not more than $2,500 to $25 per day and not more than $5,000;
- Increasing the number of campaign reports filed by political candidates to twice in non-election years and three times in election years;
- Requiring that income derived from bribes, corrupt gifts and illegal activity counts as gross income for tax reporting purposes.
The bill is now headed to conference committee with the House of Representatives.