Ethics issues put cloud over Beacon Hill

Associated Press | 11/12/2008, 2:53 a.m.

Accusations that House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi did favors for friends with state business has touched off a government investigation as well as a battle between two representatives interested in succeeding him, state Reps. Robert DeLeo and John Rogers.

The problem is, Rogers has been under an ethical cloud himself. A state agency found that some of his campaign funds went to a friend who made the mortgage payments on a Cape Cod vacation home owned by the representative and his wife.

Such is the state of play on Beacon Hill these days, where the marble halls of the State House echo with concern about corruption and scandal.

In the Senate chamber, members voted unanimously to demand the resignation of state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson after she was arrested by federal agents on charges of accepting nearly $25,000 in bribes. An FBI affidavit included photographs of Wilkerson allegedly accepting money at restaurants within a block of her office.

The state Senate was already reeling after state Sen. James Marzilli was arrested on charges he sexually harassed four women following a government meeting in Lowell. The Arlington Democrat ended up checking into a psychiatric hospital.

All the activity prompted Gov. Deval Patrick to call for a comprehensive ethics reform package when the House and Senate reconvene in January.

“I think that my concern … is it affects how people perceive the institutions of the House and the Senate, that it causes people to lose the trust they have in elected officials,” said state Rep. James Eldridge, D-Acton, who is switching chambers in January after winning a Senate race last Tuesday.

A DiMasi ally, state Rep. Jay Kaufman, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Service, conceded there is “dust in the air” from the various controversies. But he said it hasn’t impeded the legislative agenda. He ticked off a list of accomplishments this year that included landmark energy and oceans management bills, as well as a protracted debate about casino gambling.

“Does it make for distracting conversation around the water cooler? Yes. But has it kept us from getting our job done? No,” said Kaufman, D-Lexington.

The State Ethics Commission is investigating DiMasi after a spate of newspaper stories about a 2007 bill authorizing the purchase of performance management software from Cognos ULC, a Burlington company.

DiMasi met with a Patrick administration official to talk about such software, and on the day the state wired the company its $13 million payment, Cognos paid $500,000 to Richard Vitale, DiMasi’s accountant and former campaign treasurer, The Boston Globe reported.

The state bans lobbyists from receiving “success fees” when bills pass, but Vitale has said he was not a lobbyist and did nothing wrong. Around the same time, Vitale gave DiMasi a $250,000 third mortgage on his North End condominium. DiMasi has since repaid that note and the state has canceled the Cognos contract.

DiMasi and the State Ethics Commission are now immersed in a court fight over whether the commission should have access to records and e-mails surrounding the Cognos contract. DiMasi has claimed a constitutional protection over items used in legislative deliberations, the Globe reported.