Fining of state senator clear warning to officials: Don't `double-dip'

Double-dipping may be all right in candy-making. But it certainly has no place in lawmaking. The term refers to the practice of reaching into two different pockets for the same expenses - and, yes, double-dipping is illegal in Massachusetts.

Bay State law is quite clear on that point, and it has recently been made clear that those in public life who might be tempted to double-dip are in for big trouble.

That's the message in the recent $18,000 civil fine levied against state Sen. Joseph B. Walsh (D) of Boston by state Attorney General James M. Shannon. The penalty stemmed from a state Superior Court finding that the veteran senator had charged both the commonwealth and his political campaign committee for certain travel expenses, totaling mdore than $5,600.

Mr. Shannon, whose actions in the Walsh case have been applauded by leaders of Common Cause/Massachusetts and others concerned with promoting integrity in state government, could have let the senator off with a polite admonition. Should future instances of double-dipping or other wrongdoing by Bay State officials come to the attorney general's attention, there is litle doubt he intends to pursue them no less even-handedly, letting the chips fall where they may.

Actually, the Massachusetts attorney general should not have to deal with such matters. Imposition of civil penalties for violations of state campaign finance laws could be capably handled by the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, if it were given the authority.

Legislation to vest such powers in that independent state agency was recommended in 1980 by a special commission. But thus far such proposals, including one by Common Cause now collecting dust in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, have gone nowhere. The current measure, backed by Shannon, has attracted little lawmaker enthusiasm.

Certainly the state attorney general has plenty to keep him busy enforcing various other statutes without having to become involved in going after violators of campaign finance laws when there is a separate agency already on the scene that could do the job.

Those found guilty and fined by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance still would have the right to appeal their penalties to the courts.

Walsh had little choice but to accept without a fight the fine and other penalties imposed, since the attorney general had the double-dipping evidence against him. Even though he agreed to pay back to his campaign fund whatever was taken from it illegally and is free of any posssible criminal charges, the senator will still have to answer to his constituents.

And his Senate colleagues could find themselves under some public pressure, especially from forces committed to improving the legislature's image, to consider possible disciplinary action against Walsh. His misconduct, involving at least ll separate trips to other states between 1983 and late 1986, appears to represent a pattern of disregard for the law that fellow senators can hardly overlook.

Since the Walsh double-dipping troubles first surfaced several months ago, there has been increasing speculation as to whether he might retire from the Senate. His current term expires at the end of 1988. Such a move would spare his constituents the task of handing him his walking papers.

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