Test for Massachusetts lawmakers: how to halt high-level corruption

A special challenge awaits the members of the Massachusetts Legislature when they return to work this week: how to safeguard the state against recurring high-level government corruption.

This challenge stems from the release Dec. 31 of a long-awaited report by a special commission probing state and county public building contracts during the past 20 years. The panel uncovered numerous cases of "genteel extortion" or "discreet bribery" in the awarding of such contracts under the administrations of three former governors -- Democrat Endicott Peabody and Republicans John A. Volpe and Francis W. Sargent.

So many structural defects were found in these buildings that, according to the report, it would take $2.12 billion in public funds to correct them -- over and above the $17 billion originally spent.

Despite the weight of the nine-volume, two-year investigative study, many of the more than 100 individuals cited will escape prosecution because of the statute of limitations or because they were granted immunity to testify.

The commission, chaired by former Amherst College president John William Ward , stated: "For a decade, at least, across Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the way to get architectural contracts was to buy them. . .. Among those who had money and the influence to strike the bargain, the state was for sale."

Among key findings:

* Political campaign kickbacks, bribery, and extortion in exchange for lucrative government construction contracts was a "way of life" in most of the 1960s and 1970s.

* Approximately three-quarters of the 3,000 nonmunicipal public buildings constructed from 1968 into 1980 have severe defects, such as sagging ceilings, leaky roofs, crumbling walls, playing fields that do not drain, and failed electrical and heating systems.

"If this were your personal house, you would be screaming at the architect and contractor," the report quotes one county official as saying.

* The principal campaign fund-raiser for governors Volpe and Sargent, Albert P. (Toots) Manzi, acted improperly in soliciting contributions from contractors, shielding top elected officials from "direct involvement in bribery and extortion."

* The former head of a politically influential Worcester, Mass., architectural firm, William Masiello, illegally raised several thousand dollars for the campaign of Boston Mayor Kevin H. White and was rewarded with city design contracts.

* A New York engineering firm, McKee- Berger-Mansueto, probably landed a $9 million contract to oversee construction of the new Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts by agreeing to chip into the Sargent campaign coffers.

* The design firm of a close friend of present Gov. Edward J. King (D), won more public contracts in the last 17 years than did any other company. Although corporate contributions to campaigns are illegal in Massachusetts, the report cited the firm's head, D. Richard Thissen Jr., for channeling donations to Mr. King's 1978 gubernatorial campaign.

Untouched by the commission's criticism is former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) , during whose administration (1975-78) "The door was shut" to traditional political favoritism in contracts, according to one immunity-protected witness at the commission's hearings.

Following release of the 2,500-page chronicle of misdeeds, Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III charged that King had helped to delay the commission's work and has been slow in implementing its proposals.

Both Mr. Dukakis and Mr. O'Neill are readying to challenge King for the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

The immediate spotlight, however, now shines on the 1981 legislative session, which has been handed a variety of antigraft proposals by the commission. One embraces broadscale public campaign financing.

Last year, lawmakers, at the commission's behest, created a new post of inspector general with subpoena power to oversee county and state contracts. But a political standoff between King and Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti has kept the position from bein g filled.

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