The man who keeps Massachusetts politics honest wins a vote of confidence

NOBODY likes to be told his faults or the shortcomings of those he trusts. And high-ranking public officials, like Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, are certainly no exception. So over the past five years, when state Inspector General Joseph R. Barresi cited inefficiencies in the executive branch, Governor Dukakis was sometimes less than pleased. But he did not let that feeling influence his vote to retain Mr. Barresi as the inspector general (IG).

While it is questionable how successful the governor might have been had he chosen not to support Barresi for the highly sensitive $58,500-a-year post, the fact remains that there was no such effort.

But in joining with State Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti and State Auditor John J. Finnegan in a unanimous decision to reappoint the IG to a new five-year term, the governor may have displeased a few aides.

Barresi has been particularly critical of the Metropolitan District Commission and the capacity of its engineering division to oversee various contracts. In his latest critique, he noted that significant management improvements had been made but that the MDC still lacks adequate protection from fraud.

In the IG's recently released report covering his agency's first nearly five years of operations, savings or suggested savings totaling $55 million are highlighted.

The report noted that the agency's work has led to 8 felony convictions, 11 pending felony indictments, 9 restitutions and criminal fines, the administrative disciplining of 18 public officials, the barring of 2 vendors from state contracts, and the uncovering of abuses involving entertainment of municipal finance officials by banks. Under Barresi the agency has also spearheaded major government-management reforms.

The success of the IG operation in Massachusetts has attracted the attention of several states. A similar watchdog agency is now taking shape in Connecticut.

All of this, along with the IG's reputation for thoroughness, hardly lessened Baressi's prospects. The May 14 vote, which ended months of speculation, ensured the commonwealth of continued impartial scrutiny of the awarding and handling of state construction and service contracts.

Clearly, after five years as IG, Barresi has the investigative and whistle-blowing experience the job requires. He has proved he can run an agency dedicated not only to ferreting out abuse and corruption but also to preventing such wrongdoing. In announcing the reappointment, Dukakis praised the IG's ``integrity and independence.''

Barresi has steered clear of politics throughout his public career, which began more than 35 years ago on the staff of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a private watchdog agency that he later headed. That fact, coupled with his knowledge of the inner workings of government, surely contributed to his initial selection five years ago by Mr. Bellotti and Mr. Finnegan five years ago. (Then-Gov. Edward J. King backed a member of his administration.)

The 1981 law providing for an inspector general came in response to recommendations of the Special Commission Concerning State and County Buildings. It had uncovered widespread fraud and wheeling and dealing in the handling of state building and architectural contracts. The statute entrusts selection of the inspector general to a committee made up of the governor, attorney general, and state auditor. Nobody can hold the post for more than two consecutive five-year terms.

Today the IG's office has a 32-member staff of investigators, accountants, engineers, legal and clerical aides and an annual budget of $1.3 million. The pending House-approved fiscal 1987 budget provides for four more positions and appropriations slightly in excess of $1.33 million.

As Dukakis, Bellotti, and Finnegan concluded, all things considered, this is a valuable arm of state government that saves far more taxpayer dollars than it spends.

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