How to keep 'bad apples' from spoiling state's whole political barrel

Most government employees and elected officials in Massachusetts are dedicated, hard-working people of deep-seated honesty. Yet, over the years, the misconduct of a few has cast a shadow of discredit over those who serve the commonwealth and its capital city.

The federal grand jury indictment of state Rep. Vincent J. Piro (D) of Somerville on conspiracy and attempted extortion charges raises anew the question of how well the humble taxpayer is protected against corruption by those in positions of trust.

The state Office of Inspector General, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and the state Ethics Commission - all established within the past decade - have made positive contributions toward lessening wheeling and dealing by public employees and elected officials.

However, these and other steps to safeguard the commonwealth from would-be chislers and law-benders are not enough.

This is underscored by the conviction or ''no contest'' pleadings to charges of wrongdoing by 25 Bay State and Boston officials over the past seven years. Several others, including Mr. Piro, a ninth-term legislator, are awaiting trial.

The Somerville representative is the fifth incumbent or former state lawmaker indicted for various misdeeds, some involving attempted extortion or payoffs, in less than a decade.

The others, all later found guilty, are former Sens. Joseph J. C. DiCarlo of Revere, Ronald C. MacKenzie of Burlington, George Rogers of New Bedford, and James A. Kelly Jr. of Oxford. Mr. Kelly, who served as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, was for a decade one of the most powerful men in Massachusetts government circles.

Since 1976, other state or Boston officials who were convicted of or plead guilty to conspiracy, bribery, or seeking payoffs include Gerald F. O'Leary of the Boston School Committee; Barry Locke, state secretary of Transportation and Construction; and Francis P. Tracey, Boston deputy commissioner of real property.

At least four former high-level Boston employees, most of whom had close connections to Mayor Kevin H. White, have been convicted or have pleaded no contest in connection with wrongdoing ranging from soliciting payoffs to mail fraud in conjunction with fraudulently obtaining a disability pension. Yesterday Theodore V. Anzalone, key fund-raiser of Mayor White, was convicted of circumventing campaign contribution requirements and still faces another trial on unrelated extortion charges.

Piro and others who have not yet stood trial are entitled to their day in court, and it would be unfair to assume guilt on the basis of an indictment. But the type of crime of which Piro is accused - seeking a payoff from an undercover FBI agent posing as a businessman needing special legislation to permit the granting of a liquor license - is serious enough to cast doubts on his effectiveness as a lawmaker in coming months.

From the moment of his indictment June 19 there was little doubt Piro could not hold onto his post of House Democratic whip. Why it took him two closed-door huddles with House Speaker Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn before he stepped down is unclear. If he had declined to vacate the post, he could have been fired, but such a move could have been awkward for the Speaker, who will try to fend off a challenge for the gavel next January.

Some fellow lawmakers, especially those who are up against stiff opposition in their reelection bids this fall, would not be disappointed if Piro had chosen to leave the House altogether. But that's something he is not required to do - even if he is found guilty before the expiration of his current House term.

In 1976, Mr. DiCarlo, then the Democratic floor leader in the state Senate, held onto his seat until after he was convicted of conspiracy, and was finally impeached by his colleagues in April 1977. Senator MacKenzie, found guilty of the same offense at the time, also continued to serve until after his sentencing but resigned during removal proceedings.

A year later, when Senator Rogers was indicted and convicted of bribery and conspiracy in connection with state vocational-education funds, he filled out the remaining four months of his two-year term. He lost a bid for reelection.

Certainly there is no shortage of able men and women who could serve with distinction in public office - and without violating their public trust.

Voting a fellow lawmaker out of office, even one whose misconduct had brought discredit on the legislature, is awkward and time-consuming. A better process might be to require an officeholder automatically to vacate his job upon conviction - a move that would require amending the state constitution.

Also worthy of consideration is a permanent ban from state or municipal office for anyone convicted of a felony, especially one in connection with malfeasance in office or on the job. And public employees found guilty of abusing their authority also could be permanently banished from the public payroll.

Another approach would be to require automatic forfeiture of all pension benefits to any officeholder who is convicted of job-related criminal behavior. It's silly to waste tax dollars on those who have proved insensitive to their sworn or implied responsibilities.

The inspector general and the Ethics Commission cannot be expected to ferret out every bit of corruption or to uncover all the bad apples within state government. The next logical move toward corruption-free government might be to expand the investigative forces of both these agencies.

In conjunction, a more vigorous effort by others on Beacon Hill and at City Hall - who in the past have appeared timid - is needed to find spotted apples in the government barrel. Too frequently it has been the US district attorneys, first Edward F. Harrington and in recent years William Weld, who have uncovered and pursued wrongdoers with political connections in the State House, or on the Boston municipal scene.

A few a bad apples doth not a barrel make. But the public demands nothing less than increased vigilance in pursuit of corruption wherever it may occur and whoever it might involve - Democrat, Republican, or independent with or without political connections.

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