Patrick Proposes Ethics Reform to Curb Corrupt Politicians and Lobbyists

Responding to a rash of public corruption scandals in Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick on Tuesday proposed steeper fines for ethics violations and other improvements to laws meant to keep government officials and lobbyists honest.

“No one can legislate morality, we all know that,” Patrick, a Democrat, said at a news conference at the State House. “But we can assure ourselves and the public that the consequences for breaching the public trust will be serious, swift and certain.”

The laws governing ethics and lobbying in Massachusetts have not been overhauled in years, Patrick said, and “significant gaps and weaknesses” make them hard to enforce. His proposals include increasing the maximum punishment for bribery to $100,000 and 10 years in prison, from $5,000 and three years.

The current penalty for bribery is among the weakest in the nation, Patrick said, but his plan would make it one of the toughest.

Also under Patrick’s plan, the secretary of state would get the power to suspend or revoke lobbyists’ licenses and the attorney general could record conversations in public corruption investigations. Under current law, state law enforcement officials can wiretap only in cases involving organized crime.

Patrick, who is halfway through his first term, said he would file a bill with the proposals on Wednesday.

The proposals are essentially recommendations from a task force that Patrick appointed after Dianne Wilkerson, a longtime Democratic state senator, was arrested in October on federal charges of taking more than $23,000 in bribes. Investigators taped Wilkerson, who has resigned but pleaded not guilty, appearing to accept wads of cash from businessmen who wanted her help getting a liquor license.

The bipartisan task force found that the State Ethics Commission, which oversees the conduct of public employees, needs more power. For example, the commission can summon documents and testimony during an investigation but cannot directly enforce such orders. Instead, the commission has to file a lawsuit and wait for a judge to decide whether to enforce them.

Under the new law, said Ben Clements, Patrick’s chief legal counsel, a public official who received a summons from the ethics commission could avoid complying only by seeking a judge’s ruling himself.

The commission recently went to court to force Salvatore F. DiMasi, the Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives, to respond to a subpoena for records in an investigation into a potential ethics violation.

In a statement, DiMasi did not offer an opinion of Patrick’s proposals or respond to the governor’s request that the legislature vote on them within a month. He said that “some common sense ethics reforms should be considered” this year.

Patrick, a newcomer to politics, and DiMasi, a veteran of Beacon Hill, have clashed over some of the governor’s past proposals, but lately they have gotten along publicly.

A spokesman for Therese Murray, a Democrat who is president of the State Senate, said the Senate would give the proposals “full consideration.”

Wilkerson’s resignation was not the only one from the State Senate last year. J. James Marzilli Jr., a veteran Democratic state senator from Arlington, resigned after being charged with trying to grope a woman on a park bench.

In August, the Middlesex County register of probate was charged with stealing thousands of dollars from cash and copy machines in a county building. And in October, two employees of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, including a district manager, were charged with stealing 2,000 feet of ironwork from a historic bridge over the Charles River and selling it to a scrap yard.

Meanwhile, a Boston city councilor was charged in November with taking a $1,000 bribe.