Legislators cut a loophole in Bay State conflict-of-interest law

IF a public official, or someone with political connections, is caught speeding, should a law be enacted to protect that person from a possible fine? The obvious answer should be a resounding ``no.''

Yet that is, in effect, what the Massachusetts legislature has done in enacting a controversial statute weakening the state's conflict-of-interest law. The measure put on the books, over the veto of Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, exempts not only current, but also former members of the Board of Regents of Higher Education from standards of conduct required of those in other agencies.

While the legislature has the authority to change laws as it sees fit, with or without the concurrence of the governor, it is questionable whether this action was in the public's best interest. The prime benefactor of the new law is Boston banker James M. Howell, a former regent who had been facing conflict-of-interest charges before the state Ethics Commission.

The complaint, which could have resulted in at least a reprimand, stemmed from his participation in a board-of-regents discussion in which he opposed establishing a nursing school at the University of Massachusetts. The proposed school would have been in competition with one at Boston University, where he was on the board of trustees.

Under the now repealed provisions of the conflict-of-interest law, no member of the state board of regents could legally have a part in a matter in which he, or those with whom he is affiliated, had a financial interest.

Massachusetts House Speaker George Keverian (D) of Everett, who filed the special legislation, noted that the statute creating a board of regents to oversee higher education provided for certain members to have connections with private colleges. He and others supporting the change held that it was never the law's intent to prevent some regents from participating fully in the deliberations.

But why did the legislature wait five years to recognize the problem? Presumably, Dr. Howell, or anyone on the higher education board, could have gone to the Ethics Commission and received approval to take part in discussions in which there might be some type of conflict of interest.

While there is nothing to suggest Howell, a highly respected economist and a leader in the business community, had anything but the best intentions in his opposition to the nursing school, there can be no doubt that he violated the letter of the law.

Were he a man of less prominence or without friends in lawmaking circles, it is unlikely that there would have been the rush to shield him from the Ethics Commission. That panel, charged with enforcing the conflict-of-interest law, can hardly be accused of being unfair. Anything that weaken it has to worry those committed to good government.

Governor Dukakis thus had little choice but to veto the bill. His signature would have been viewed in some quarters, especially outside the state, as a gesture of political expediency.

The governor must have been disappointed in his failure to persuade lawmakers to uphold his veto. The Keverian-led House voted to override, 117 to 29, and the Senate followed suit barely, 26 to 13, with Sen. President William M. Bulger (D) casting the deciding vote.

The legislative action raises doubts as to the depth of lawmaker support for protecting the integrity of state government.

Having stretched the conflict-of-interest law to exempt the board of higher education, the senators and representatives may find themselves besieged with requests for special treatment from those in other state agencies.

This could make a mockery of what was a reasonably strong anti-corruption statute, leaving the Ethics Commission with little more to do than shuffle papers, and administer a few regulations, with the clout of a feather duster.

If that is what the legislature wants it has made what may be a decisive move in that direction. Instead of weaker conflict-of-interest provisions, what Massachusetts may most need is much stronger ones, ones to restrict lawmakers themselves from voting on measures in which their outside business or profession could be directly affected.

Should teachers vote on proposals involving minimum salaries for teachers, realtors vote on zoning matters, or insurance agents vote on matters affecting premiums or commissions?

Conflicts of interest are an all-too-familiar part of the Bay State legislative scene. Few lawmakers, however, seem to recognize that and vote ``present'' when their incomes could be at stake.

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