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Published: December 30, 2008
ERC Vice-Chair Scott Harshbarger:
Working to Change the Rules of the Game
When Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick established a blue-ribbon Task Force on Public Integrity last month, he didn’t have far to look for a seasoned ethics expert to join the panel.
Scott Harshbarger has experience and credentials almost too numerous to mention for the job. Besides being vice chair of the board of the Ethics Resource Center, he is the former attorney general of Massachusetts and senior counsel in the Boston office of major law firm Proskauer Rose, where – not surprisingly – he heads the firm’s pro bono initiative.
The governor’s task force, which is charged with reviewing the state’s existing regulations on ethics, lobbying and public employee conduct, may be a rare “teachable moment” in Harshbarger’s view.
“Much of what the panel is considering has been looked at before,” he says. “Governor Weld looked at it 10 years ago. Governor Romney looked at it four years ago. The real obstacle has been the legislature.”
Gov. Patrick gave the task force 60 days to issue its report and recommendations, meaning the deadline will fall shortly before the state legislature reconvenes in January. “So can we meet the public’s expectations and what’s the report going to be” are key questions, says Harshbarger. But the key question is, “Will the legislature take it up?”
The governor of Illinois has been drawing huge headlines lately, and a survey published recently by the New York Times showed Massachusetts faring significantly better than Illinois, and others, in categories such as the number of guilty public officials. (Massachusetts ranked 18th; Illinois was 7th.) But Massachusetts has its own colorful history.
The state has ethics laws and regulations in place, Harshbarger notes. “But they’ve always had very weak penalties. Our challenge is how do we strengthen the state Ethics Commission? How do we strengthen the lobbying laws so they have teeth? How do we make a credible showing and how do we change the culture?”
The trigger for creating the task force – and one reason why Harshbarger believes this reform effort has momentum – involves the case of a Massachusetts state senator. The lawmaker was caught by FBI surveillance cameras allegedly accepting cash and concealing it in her underwear. She has been charged with accepting bribes totaling $23,500, and resigned her seat in the legislature last month.
Federal law enforcement officials pursue these cases, in part, because “our tools for state prosecutors are very weak,” Harshbarger says. The secretary of state, for example, registers lobbyists but lacks subpoena power and there are no penalties for failure to comply.
“We have an opportunity to have a real impact,” Harshbarger says of the task force’s work. “I hope we can create a credible deterrent, and change the rules of the game.”
In This Issue
- The Policy Report By Paula J. Desio, ERC Chair on Ethics Policy:
Ethics and Compliance Programs May Get Their Day in Court. Will they soon provide a legal defense to criminal liability?
- ERC Vice-Chair Scott Harshbarger: Working to Change the Rules of the Game
- Tough Times. Tough Actions.
Column By Patricia J. Harned, Ph.D. President, ERC.
- ERC's Government Roundtable Takes the Long View