Boston — Massachusetts, a state where political graft has thrived for decades, now may be carving out a reputattion for rooting out chiselers in public construction projects.
Massachusetts lawmakers, under the pressure of publicity from an official investigation into rampant corruption, have approved three reform measures aimed at preventing political payoffs, discouraging cheating by architects and contractors, and punishing those involved.
The most far-reaching of these reforms provides for a new, powerful post of inspector general. Legislation establishing the post was signed into law by Gov. Edward J. King shortly after it reached his desk in the waning hours of the 1980 session early July 5.
In addition, awaiting gubernatorial action is legislation that would:
* Stiffen the penalties for those convicted of bribery or other types of payoffs and fraud in connection with state contracts.
* Improve the process for selecting those who design and erect public structure and oversee the construction.
All three measures were initiated and promoted by a special commission created by lawmakers two years ago in the wake of a major scandal. Two state senators were convicted of extorting $40,000 from an engineering firm that supervised the construction of the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts.
The corruption probe panel, chaired by former Amherst College president John William Ward, also recommended strengthening the state campaign financing laws, including partial public funding of political campaigns. Lawmakers, however, refused to go along with the idea, which would have greatly reduced the amount private contributors could give to individual candidates.
Another push for campaign-finance legislation is expected when the 1981 lawmaking session commences next January. And the special commission, whose life has been extended through Dec. 31, is readying other anti-corruption measures.
Investigation by the special commission uncovered millions of dollars in widespread payoffs and kickbacks by contract-seeking firms to campaign fund-raisers for three Massachusetts governors between 1962 and 1974.
Testimony during more than two months of public hearings included a narrative of shoddy workmanship on state and county building projects handled by politically connected architects, engineers, and contractors. Correcting major defects in the construction would cost close to $150 million, the panel was advised by its investigators.
The newly created office of inspector general is patterned after similar watchdogs in the federal government, including the General Services Administration.
The corruption sleuth, to be chosen by a three-member council -- the state attorney general, the secretary of public safety, and the state auditor -- would have full authority to subpoena records in his investigations. His power to summons witnesses, however, would require approval of three-quarters of the members of a special advisory panel.
Penalties for bid rigging and submission of phony invoices and similar fraud also have been toughened.
Such misconduct, as well as shoddy workmanship on state contracts and payments for favors by various firms to public officials and their political campaigns, were disclosed during the special commission hearings at which 97 witnesses were questioned.
Testimony involved the fund-raising activities in behalf of former Govs. Endicott Peabody, John A. Volpe, and Francis W. Sargent, and Boston Mayor Kevin H. White.