Officeholders under legal clouds should be sidelined

Even though the number of public officials involved in wrongdoing, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, is small, their impact on public confidence in government is very serious.

In the past decade, public confidence in the Bay State legislature has been shaken by the conviction of four of its members on charges of extortion, bribery , conspiracy, or other crimes in violation of their sacred trust.

The pending federal court case of state Rep. Vincent J. Piro (D) of Somerville, regardless of whether he is ultimately acquitted, has hardly improved the situation.

Yet the general public impression that such instances foster is grossly unfair to the vast majority of lawmakers, both past and present, who are and were men and women of high integrity.

Clearly what is needed is something that could not only protect the reputations of honest, hardworking majority of officeholders, but also that of the legislature as a whole, and, indeed, all agencies of government.

Georgia voters last week took a step in the direction of correcting the situation when, through statewide referendum, they provided for automatic suspension of public officials who are indicted. Also, a sidelined lawmaker or other public official, if later found guilty, would be deemed unqualified to return to office and the post would be vacated immediately.

Besides saving the time and expense of impeachment proceedings, this policy spares colleagues in government sometimes awkward, or at least politically sensitive, decisions, involving personal friendships.

That Massachusetts may need an arrangement similar to the newly approved measure in Georgia can hardly be questioned in the light of past experiences with indicted, and even convicted, public officials who refuse to step down, though politically prodded to do so.

In August 1976, for example, when state Sens. Joseph J. C. DiCarlo (D) of Revere and Ronald C. MacKensie (R) of Burlington were indicted for bribery and conspiracy, they continued in their lawmaking seats, although with perhaps decreased effectiveness.

That fall both lawmakers were reelected and remained in the Senate, not only through, but after, their Feb. 25, 1977, federal court convictions on eight counts of political corruption involving a state construction management contract.

While Mr. MacKenzie finally did step down, shortly after their March 23 sentencing, Mr. DiCarlo, despite pressures from friendly Senate colleagues to do likewise, refused to leave. On April 4 he was expelled and his chair declared vacant, on a 28-to-8 vote.

Even though such situations are few and hopefully far between, the possibility remains for a convicted legislator to retain his lawmaking chair, indeed even run for and win reelection, while behind bars.

Bay State political history includes several jailed public officials who campaigned and won reelection while locked up paying their debts to society for misdeeds in office, among them then state Rep. Charles Iannello of Boston in 1962.

Some two decades ago a group of reform-bent Massachusetts activists, including Michael S. Dukakis, concerned over the image of state government, proposed a measure to ban those convicted of corruption in office from again holding an elective post. But, for reasons certainly more political than practical, the effort went nowhere.

Indeed, it is questionable how much, if any, real support such a move might have today, even after several political corruption trials.

If public officials - elected or appointed - knew violation of the public trust, no matter how slight it might be, would cost them not only their present posts but all future opportunities in government, it could go a long way toward preventing corruption.

While in all justice the innocence of the accused must be presumed, unless and until proven guilty, it is questionable whether an indicted officeholder should be free to seek elective office, since such a candidacy is at best flawed. Clearly there is no shortage of capable men and women, free from the shadow of possible conviction, who could take their place.

Mr. Piro, whose first trial resulted in a hung jury last month and who now faces a second trial in January, has continued in his lawmaking seat, as is his perfect right under the present law. The embattled Somerville lawmaker also pursued his candidacy for state senator, winning the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 18 primary but losing in the Nov. 6 election to Somerville Alderman Salvatore Albano, who ran on stickers.

Since there is no hint of lawmaker enthusiasm, or even interest, in initiating a measure even approaching the one Georgia voters have just put on the books, the impetus almost surely must come from within state better-government circles.

Such organizations as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters might wish to consider a statewide petition drive for amending the Massachusetts constitution to provide at least partial protection against ''bad apples'' in the commonwealth's government barrel.

Collecting the needed voter signatures, perhaps close to 100,000, might be none too difficult, since presumably most Bay Staters have long since had it with dishonest public servants and want to protect state, county, and municipal government from them. By going the voter initiative route to amending the constitution, only one-fourth the combined membership of the state Senate and House of Representatives, instead of a clear majority, would have to go along with such a change.

It is hard to imagine that at least 50 legislators would not be sufficiently concerned about the image of state and local government to take a modest step toward providing at least minal safeguards. Requiring an indicted public official or employee to step aside, with or without pay, until his or her case has gone to trial certainly is not without merit, even if it might leave constituents of the accused temporarily without representation.

Equally compelling in the interest of clean government and an untarnished image would seem to be the automatic, permanent removal of anyone on a public payroll who is found guilty of criminal misconduct in connection with his or her position of trust.

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