Massachusetts inspector general keeps state ethics center stage

Not all watchdogs, even those dedicated to protecting taxpayer dollars, are fully appreciated. The state office of inspector general, for example, may be barking too loud for the tender ears of some public officials and others whose questionable doings are being sniffed out.

Clearly some in Massachusetts government are rankled by the watchdog agency's lack of timidity and its refusal to overlook certain of their activities.

While fully supporting the need for an inspector general to attack waste and inefficiency in the handling of public contracts, some in the state's executive branch would prefer a less zealous operation.

For this reason Gov. Michael S. Dukakis could find himself under increasing pressure to replace the agency's current chief, Joseph R. Barresi, when the latter's five-year term expires next summer.

The decision, however, is not entirely the governor's and will require the concurrence of either Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti or Auditor John J. Finnegan, if not both. (In the spring of 1981, when Mr. Barresi was chosen to become the commonwealth's first inspector general (IG), Mr. Bellotti and Mr. Finnegan favored him. But then-Gov. Edward J. King was pushing another applicant.)

Obviously, the decision should not be based on political considerations but rather on how well the incumbent has performed.

What the highly sensitive post least needs is a muckraker or a politician. Barresi is neither of these.

His independence from the governmental power structure has enabled him to dig into a broad range of shortcomings involving the conduct of various public officials or employees at both state and municipal levels.

Certainly not all of the wrongdoing -- even a substantial portion of it -- is of a criminal nature. Some of it stems from either incompetence, errors in judgment, or questionable activities within the letter of the law.

The IG's recent findings that as much as $11 million in municipal funds were wasted in 1983 by being held in low-interest or no-interest accounts in certain apparently favored banks is disquieting. It may have been within the law, but it is a practice that hardly serves the taxpayers' best interests.

Legislation to require open competitive bidding among banks wishing to become the repository of public funds, whether state or local, makes sense for the commonwealth's cities and towns.

Also long overdue is a substantial tightening of the state's conflict-of-interest law to forbid public officials from accepting gifts, no matter how small, from anyone with whom they have dealings in connection with their public responsibilities.

The IG's findings that in a single year various municipal treasurers and other local officials were the benefactors of $138,000 in gratuities from seven large banks, are shocking.

Providing meals and various types of entertainment, including trips, for special clients may well be a legitimate business practice for those in the highly competitive banking community. City or town treasurers, however, are hardly ordinary customers, at least in the usual sense, since the money they have to deposit is not theirs but belongs to taxpayers.

The state conflict-of-interest law strictly bars government officials from accepting gifts or free services of substance.

This, by court interpretation, has been held to be anything with a value greater than $50. Several instances cited in the IG's report involved gifts from banks to local officials in excess of that amount.

The number of municipal treasurers or others with hands outstretched for special favors may not be great. Yet the conduct of a few tends to put their colleagues in a bad light, or at least makes them suspect.

Everyone in positions of public trust should recognize that accepting a gift from anyone with whom they are conducting the people's business is morally wrong. Those who cannot see that might do themselves and the public a favor by stepping down.

The city and town treasurers association or perhaps the Massachusetts Municipal Association might want to consider a strict no-gift section in their code of ethics for members.

If nothing else, it would show that they care about the image of those they represent. Those who have public contracts to let or tax dollars to invest should be all the more wary of those bearing gifts, no matter how inexpensive.

The Massachusetts IG certainly has done the commonwealth a favor in pointing out what has been going on. That's one favor every concerned taxpayer can readily accept, and with a clear conscience.

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