Political innocents who discount allegations that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is politicizing the Boston Public Library’s board of trustees so that he can directly control the nation’s oldest free municipal library received a rude awakening recently.
It turns out that three of the library’s nine trustees — who are appointed by the mayor, but by custom and tradition are expected to impartially oversee operations and development in the name of the public — do outside business with the city, and failed to disclose that fact.
This is an apparent violation of Massachusetts’s conflict-of-interest law. Attorney General Martha Coakley should act quickly and decisively to investigate the troubling situation. While she is at it, Coakley should also investigate whether this practice is an aberration from the norm, or whether it has occurred under previous mayors.
We’re not suggesting that Coakley must prosecute the trustees. (Although that would be in her purview, should she find that any laws have been broken. State law holds the penalty for failing to disclose potential conflicts of interest to be fines up to $3000 and jail terms as long as two years.)
Rather, the central concern here is that this revelation calls into question the integrity of the library system and the independence of the trustees from political pressure and mayoral whims or dictates.
News of the trustees’s business dealings with the city comes as a result of some deft detective work by Donovan Slack of the Boston Globe. Of the trustees in question, Slack established that Donna DePrisco of the family jewelry business bearing her name received $38,148 for city gifts and engraving; fundraising consultant Karyn Wilson was paid $48,300 for service rendered to the city; and Zamawa Arenas received payments to her company, Argus Communications, of $174,829 while on the board. Before Arenas joined the board in May of 2006, Argus received $488,845 for city work.
The tainted trustees said that they were either unaware of the requirement to declare potential conflicts or thought that the specifics of the law did not apply to them in their circumstances. Trustee chairman Jeffrey Rudman, a high-powered lawyer who practices with the white-shoe law firm WilmerHale in the Financial District and is widely viewed as Menino’s agent and go-to guy on the board, likewise said he was unaware of disclosure requirements and doubted that they applied. As an attorney, Rudman’s stated lack of awareness of a core element of nonprofit board service particularly stretches credulity; and, of course, ignorance of a law is never an excuse for not following it.
(In the spirit of full disclosure it should be noted that Peter Kadzis, executive editor of the Phoenix Media/Communications Group, for almost 15 years served on the volunteer board of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that raises money for the library and promotes community use. Kadzis left the board this past year.)
DePrisco, Wilson, and Arenas were among the seven trustees who voted not to renew the contract of now-departed library president Bernard Margolis, who was viewed as insufficiently compliant by City Hall, which tends to favor go-along-to-get-along types not disposed to argue with the mayor. If it were not for the votes of this trio, Margolis, professionally distinguished despite repeated slanders by City Hall, might still be leading the library.