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Few calls for more ethics changes on Beacon Hill


As former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi ponders his next legal steps after his conviction on federal corruption charges, his former colleagues on Beacon Hill are hoping to put the damaging revelations behind them.

So far, however, there have been few calls from Democratic leaders for more changes to the state’s ethics laws.

Government watchdog groups have also conceded there’s a limit to how much the state can regulate the behavior of elected officials. They say the guilty verdicts in DiMasi’s case prove that laws barring lawmakers from using the power of their office for personal gain do work.

Even Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, have largely limited their criticism to what they say is the corrupting influence of essentially one-party rule in Massachusetts.

One reason for the muted response is a sweeping ethics bill approved by the House and Senate in 2009 in response to the allegations against DiMasi and former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, another Boston Democrat who pleaded guilty to bribery charges.

That bill, signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, banned giving gifts of any value to lawmakers and increased the penalty for bribery of state officials to a $100,000 fine, 10 years in prison or both.

It also doubled the penalty for violating lobbying laws to a $10,000 fine or up to five years in prison and created a statewide grand jury to make it easier to investigate political corruption.

“Clearly he was convicted of a crime, so something worked,” said Pam Wilmot, president of Common Cause Massachusetts.

Wilmot, who pushed for the 2009 measure, conceded the state law would have done little to prevent DiMasi from orchestrating what the government described as a kickback scheme. DiMasi was tried in federal court.

Prosecutors said DiMasi used his position as speaker to assure that the firm Cognos received two multimillion dollar software contracts. In exchange, prosecutors said, DiMasi received $65,000 in payments funneled through a law associate.

DiMasi’s sentencing, originally scheduled for Aug. 18, has been pushed back to Sept. 8.

While the 2009 ethics law is important, Wilmot said there’s no way of legislating away greed.

“Even if we got our entire wish list, it’s not going to stop bad behavior and that’s why we need law enforcement agencies,” she said. “There is always going to be pressure in politics to do the wrong thing.”

While they’ve expressed sadness, anger and a touch of defiance, few top Democrats at the Statehouse have called for additional changes to ethics laws in the immediate aftermath of DiMasi’s conviction.

DiMasi’s successor, Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo, said lawmakers already have “made our government a whole lot more transparent than it’s ever been.”

More than anyone else, DeLeo has pushed back against the notion that DiMasi’s actions represented “business as usual” at the Statehouse.

“Every time I’ve read that a chill came over my body, because that’s not business as usual on Beacon Hill,” DeLeo told reporters just hours after the DiMasi verdict. “I’m going to do the best thing I can to turn things around and lead this institution by example.”

Republicans also have made few calls for policy changes, saying the real problem is the lack of political balance in Massachusetts, where Democrats hold every statewide office, overwhelming majorities in the Massachusetts House and Senate and every seat in Congress except for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Brown.

In a statement, Brown credited the DiMasi jury for “sending a message that the business-as-usual, go-along-to-get-along mentality in Massachusetts politics will not be tolerated.”

House Minority Leader Brad Jones also argued that more balance on Beacon Hill would provide an important brake on potential corruption, but said it’s too early to say whether new rules or tougher laws will be proposed as a result of the DiMasi verdicts.

“This conviction is barely 24 hours old,” Jones said last Thursday, adding that, “I really don’t think it’s going to work to say we’ve already made some changes and these are the failures of an individual.”

Associated Press