The trial of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi is still ongoing, but Massachusetts voters don't need a verdict to recognize that the pay-for-play culture on Beacon Hill is even sleazier and more freewheeling than imagined.
There is an intellectual case to be made that what DiMasi did — represent a software manufacturer and use his political clout to wheedle the state into buying a $17.5 million system it did not need — is merely unethical, maybe even reprehensible, but still perfectly legal. As is so often the case, if DiMasi is found guilty, it will be for trying to cover up what he clearly did.
In about two weeks, a jury will decide these fine points.
Guilty or not, DiMasi violated the public trust. DiMasi betrayed his constituents in the North End and elsewhere; he betrayed his colleagues in the House — at least those who conduct themselves with honor; and he betrayed the citizens of the commonwealth who, through the agency of their district representatives, chose DiMasi to superintend the greater good.
It is a measure of how deeply ingrained the culture of corruption is on Beacon Hill that the efforts of Democratic State Senator James B. Eldridge of Acton to enact legislation that would bar state contractors from donating to political campaigns died last year in the House and Senate.
As the Worcester Telegram has noted: "The ability of state contractors to influence legislation and the administration remains an open question, in part because they are allowed to pass large amounts of cash to elected representatives and political candidates in the form of campaign contributions." The admirable legislation proposed by Eldridge deserves to be resurrected.
By itself, however, it would not be enough.
Elected officials must also be prohibited from representing or receiving retainers from companies or individuals that seek to do business with the state.
It is about ethics. It is a matter of common sense. No one can serve two masters. Since the taxpayers pay the salaries of elected officials, the public should assert its right to their undivided service.
That's what Connecticut did years ago when it was hit hard by a plague of scandals involving contractors.
Governor Deval Patrick, who had his reputation bruised in court after he effectively testified that he rolled over to please DiMasi, should lead the effort.
Earlier this year, the Phoenix wrongly suggested that Patrick was preparing to take a dive when it became clear that the Parole Board, by failing to execute its duty, had released a dangerous criminal who later murdered a police officer in the course of a North Shore robbery.
Patrick, in fact, acted with considerable forethought and cleaned house with dispatch.
As soon as the DiMasi trial is over, whatever the verdict, Patrick should move that the legislature ban all elected officials from accepting contributions (in cash or in kind) and from representing interests that do business with the state.
Unless something were to radically change, it seems that the current House and Senate leadership are temperamentally unable — or unwilling — to do the right thing.
Democracy, said H.L. Mencken, is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.