A bill filed by the new state inspector general to give his office the unfettered right to question anyone under oath should not be acted upon before January, and then only after ample public debate on the pros and cons of such a major change, government watchdog and civil liberties groups said on Sunday.
Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts, a government watchdog, reacted strongly to the notion of any quick action on the bill.
“To change something of this magnitude deserves thorough vetting and not be treated as an amendment to a budget bill,” she said.
“There are definite pros and cons for this change,” she added. “It’s important to police corruption, but you also have to consider what civil protections people might be giving up.”
Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha, a well-regarded longtime prosecutor, on Thursday spoke publicly for the first time about a bill that, if passed and signed into law, would strengthen his office’s powers to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse in local and state government agencies by issuing subpoenas for witnesses without having to first obtain approval from an eight-member panel that includes the state attorney general.
In an interview with the Globe on Friday, Cunha said he filed the bill in early November for consideration in the 2013-14 legislative session, which begins in January, but his office hoped it could be passed sooner as an amendment to a supplemental budget appropriation.
Late Sunday, Cunha released a statement backing away from his earlier expressed hope of early action on the bill. “We filed this legislation last month with the intent all along to have it taken up in the next session,” the statement said.
After Cunha filed the bill, Governor Deval Patrick tapped the inspector general’s office to conduct the investigation of the state drug lab, where former assistant chemist Annie Dookhan allegedly tainted thousands of cases, Cunha said, increasing the need for the change.
“When the office was assigned to investigate the drug lab, making this change sooner took on more urgency,” the statement said. “We respect the Legislature’s judgment when to make the change.”
Among those expressing misgivings about the timing of consideration of the bill was Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
“It’s critical that the inspector general conduct robust investigations into serious issues,” he said in an interview. “But this bill is a significant change on what appears to have been intended as a check on the inspector general’s authority.”
Tom Hoopes, a longtime criminal defense attorney and a former prosecutor, said, “Any time there’s a call to increase prosecutorial power, you have to be wary. One thing that factors into this is the extraordinary competitiveness of prosecutorial agencies. It can lead to abuses.”
“It’s not going to happen this year,” state Representative Daniel B. Winslow, Republican of Norfolk, said Sunday of the bill’s chances of being taken up by the Legislature.
As the Legislature is in informal session, under its rules of procedure, proposed legislation can be stopped until January by a single member.
“If the inspector general wants this change, then we can have that discussion in January,” Winslow said in an interview. “This is a major policy change. Let’s debate it then, and let’s debate it in public.”
Winslow, a former judge, said Cunha, as a Norfolk assistant district attorney, often appeared before him.
“I have the highest regard for him,” he said. “And if he is interested in making this change, then I am extremely interested to know why, especially with the history of corruption in this state.”
Winslow added that the state’s present system for detecting and deterring corruption seems to be wanting.
“If the system isn’t working, the worst thing to do would be to keep the same system,” he said in explaining his willingness to hear Cunha’s arguments for greater powers.
A spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said the speaker, “hasn’t even been briefed on the bill and until he’s appropriately briefed, he can’t comment on it.”
In a statement released late Sunday, Patrick’s office said it was “not aware of efforts to attach the inspector general’s proposed legislation to that bill.”
“That said though, we want to review his bill and we want to see a supplemental spending plan for the drug lab advance,” the statement said. “We will consider both items on their own or as a package as soon as they are taken up by the Legislature.”
Attorney General Martha Coakley said through a statement released Saturday that her office is considering the proposal, but has made no commitment to supporting it.
The inspector general’s office has had subpoena power since the office was created by the Legislature in 1980. But an amendment passed four years later required the inspector general to get permission for subpoenas from a panel known as the inspector general council that included the state’s attorney general, auditor, comptroller, and public safety secretary. For such approval, an inspector general needed the votes of at least six of the eight members.
The process proved impractical and was rarely, if ever, used.
Cunha, a former asssistant attorney general, said in an interview Friday that eliminating such a step would allow him to “go deeper” into investigations and handle cases more efficiently by questioning witnesses under oath under the pains and penalties of perjury.
“It would help us fulfill our mandate on behalf of the state,” he said.
His position was supported by Gregory W. Sullivan, Cunha’s predecessor as inspector general, who said the office should have “real teeth and real power.”
Also coming out in support of Cunha’s bill was Suzanne Bump, the state auditor.
In a statement released Friday, she called involving the inspector general council “an unnecessary burden” on the inspector general and a risk of leaks of sensitive material to the news media and others.
But Francis X. Bellotti, who as attorney general in 1984 pushed for limitation on the subpoena power, was quoted in the Globe’s story on Sunday as warning of the concentrating power in anyone’s hands without checks.
“The inspector general’s office is an important one,” he said. “But it already has enough power to investigate.”
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