The scandal may be much worse than they seem to think — because they don't seem to understand what they've done wrong.

Inherently coercive
There is an episode of The Sopranos in which Carmela petitions her neighbor's sister to write a college recommendation letter for her daughter. Although she initially declines, the woman eventually submits to the entreaties. At no time does either state the obvious: Carmela's husband is a mob boss, and you don't want to cross a mob boss.

In ethics jargon, this would be known as an "inherently coercive situation," and in politics, it happens all the time — officeholders suggest that staffers might consider spending their free time volunteering for an ally's campaign, for example.

Plenty of veteran political insiders defend the pracive of rank-and-file lawmakers recomending job candidates to other departments. But even many of them concede that it seems inappropriate for a top legislative leader — particularly those with influence on the state budget — to do so. Of course, those are exactly the people who most frequently recommended candidates to probation, and whose candidates were most likely to get those jobs or promotions.

Yet DeLeo and House Ways and Means Chair Charles Murphy have publicly defended the practice— and nobody else working under the dome has spoken up in disagreement.

Their coercive power is enhanced by the fact that those same leaders hold exactly the same budgetary control over the offices who would investigate abuses. (This broader issue was detailed by the Phoenix four years ago, in an investigative report about then–Senate Ways and Means Chair Therese Murray.)

The one major independent exception, of course, is the US Attorney's office — which, not coincidentally, has typically been the one to actually pursue and seek punishment for Beacon Hill abuses.

Into the clink?
It is widely conjectured that the US Attorney's office will end up prosecuting O'Brien, and Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas Petrolati, who is described in reports and by insiders as the king of probation patronage. But several close observers, not wanting to be named, posit that the fates of a slew of bold-name lawmakers now lie in the hands of Carmen Ortiz, who became Boston's US attorney a year ago.

Those potential targets include DeLeo and Murray, as well as former Speaker Thomas Finneran and former Senate President Robert Travaglini.

Given the power of federal subpoena, and the range of public corruption law, these observers say it might not be difficult for Ortiz to connect patronage and appropriations in a way that convinces a grand jury to indict those leaders and others.

The key — and the difference between a legal and a public-image scandal — may lie in the interpretation of "value." Prosecutors have been far more eager to go after pols like DiMasi, Wilkerson, and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, who were alleged to have taken actual cash.

But cash is not the primary currency on Beacon Hill, where people trade in power and influence.

Change coming?
Already, many are saying that the practice of job recommendations will dramatically scale back, not because the elected officials think it is wrong, but because they no longer know where the public — or the courts — now draw that line.

Voluntary measures might not be enough. If the heat intensifies, we may see real pressure on the legislature to finally make itself subject to open-records law. (Courts, including probation, are also exempt.) Ditto Auditor-elect Suzanne Bump's proposal to audit the legislature.

Or, perhaps, this too shall pass. And at the close of 2011, we'll still be waiting for the scandal that will finally rattle the culture of Beacon Hill.

To read the "Talking Politics" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein@phx.com.

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