Even by the relatively forgiving standards of Massachusetts politics, these are pretty disgraceful days. House Speaker Sal DiMasi and three of his associates are under criminal and ethics investigations relating to a large software contract and favorable legislation for companies for which DiMasi's pals were allegedly lobbying. John Rogers, House majority leader, has had to pay a $30,000 fine for campaign-finance violations relating to mortgage payments on a Falmouth beach house. Former state senator Jim Marzilli is facing charges of assaulting women, and was recently caught taking a junket to Germany when he was supposedly getting treatment for mental illness. He has resigned his seat, as has former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who, after a career filled with transgressions and misdeeds, has now been charged in federal court with extortion.
The latest to join this list of scandal-plagued elected officials is City Councilor Chuck Turner, arrested last week and accused of accepting a $1000 bribe in connection with the Wilkerson investigation.
Our political officeholders — those who are suspected of some sort of wrongdoing, and those who have enabled or excused them — seem to have lost their common sense.
Their problems are threatening to stall the workings of local and state government — not because those already accused have been taken out of the game, but because so many other politicians are now frozen in fear and uncertainty over what these investigations will uncover.
This is no time for a leadership vacuum in the state legislature. We have very serious challenges to address, and significant recent turnover has produced a promising but inexperienced batch of officeholders. When the new legislative session begins in January, a quarter of all the state representatives, and nearly a quarter of the state senators, will have been in office for two years or less.
We need serious action and strong leadership — and a public trust that is unlikely to be given while so many questions remain unanswered. It would be nice to see our public officials demanding those answers — but that requires political courage, a quality clearly in low supply.
Which is why, for example, DiMasi can brush off the Ethics Commission's demands for documents — not to mention demands for explanations from the general public. Apparently DiMasi can thumb his nose at transparency and accountability, and still not fear losing his Speakership. This is both outrageous and pathetic.
To be fair, our elected officials find themselves in a thorny position. The Wilkerson and DiMasi scandals are now criminal investigations — both federal and state prosecutors are reportedly looking into dealings of DiMasi and his friends, while Wilkerson and Turner have been charged in federal court. That means subpoenas and serious consequences are involved. It also means that other officeholders honestly don't know what else those investigations might turn up.
It's not just the targeted individuals who are worried, though. Perfectly innocent officials are wondering how their actions will look if scrutinized in the wrong light. Others are afraid to be caught too close to the next person charged. As elected officials hunker down and wait to find out what will happen, how can any business get done?