State senator’s lavish gift raises concerns on ethics
They certainly stood out amid the more traditional gifts of homemade fudge and CVS gift cards that state senators typically swap during the holidays.
Senator Brian A. Joyce last month gave everyone in the 40-member state Senate gold-plated designer sunglasses, the same kind worn by celebrities Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” and Johnny Depp. That not being quite enough, he customized them with each senator’s name engraved on the side.
But the shades, meant to generate good cheer among Joyce’s colleagues at a time the Milton Democrat was seeking to join Senate leadership, may come with a tint of a different kind. Retailing for $234 to $244, the glasses may violate state ethics rules for the cut-rate price that Joyce paid for them.
Joyce originally negotiated a price of just $50 a pair from the company, Randolph Engineering, according to a spokesman for the firm.
Even with that deep, 75 percent discount, Joyce didn’t pay the bill until after the Globe inquired about the purchase last week.
When he did pay, on Jan. 23, he voluntarily increased the amount he was willing to pay by almost $25 more per pair, a company invoice shows. The final price was still far below the retail price on the company website, and below the wholesale rate two retailers said they pay.
“We were approached regarding a large number of units and met the price the buyer was willing to pay,” said Randolph Engineering spokesman George Regan, of Regan Communications, referring to the $50 a pair price originally negotiated. Joyce’s chief of staff said the company asked Joyce what he wanted to spend, and “he replied $50.”
Politicians, according to state ethics rules, are not supposed to receive discounts that are not available to others.
“Anytime you have special discounts for elected officials, there’s a possibility of a problem,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Whether the vendor feels pressured or may later feel they’re owed a favor — that’s why the law frowns on it.”
Peter Sturges, who served as executive director of the State Ethics Commission from 2000 to 2007, said any gift valued at $50 or more raises questions under the state conflict of interest law. He said the provision forbids lawmakers from getting an “unwarranted privilege” as a result of their positions and carries penalties of up to $10,000 per violation.
If Joyce were ever penalized for every pair he gave to his colleagues, it probably would make for the most expensive sunglasses to ever grace the halls of the Massachusetts State House.
Joyce, who is a lawyer, declined to be interviewed about the designer sunglasses, answering questions by e-mail through his chief of staff, Rebecca Ashby. In the e-mails, she said Joyce “paid Randolph Engineering’s rate available to bulk purchasers, plus applicable taxes,” for a total of $3,641.18. That works out to a rate of $74.50 a pair.
Without any discounts, Joyce’s order would have exceeded $11,000.
Regan, the Randolph Engineering spokesman, said Joyce paid a bulk rate price for the 46 pairs of sunglasses he bought (which included seven for his family).
The $74.50 per-pair bulk price is not evident on the company’s website. In fact, customers who shop online are not offered a discount regardless of how many pairs they try to buy. And that price is far lower than bulk rates offered by at least one major competitor, Ray-Ban, according to a customer service representative.
The company does offer discounts to other businesses, but not as generous as what Joyce was charged. For example, members of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce are eligible for a 30 percent discount, meaning a $200 pair of sunglasses would cost them $140. That is nearly twice what Joyce paid.
Joyce’s price also appears to be lower than the wholesale price for stores that sell Randolph Engineering products. One local eyeglass retailer said he pays $104.50 for each pair of Concorde-style sunglasses, $30 more than Joyce paid for the identical glasses, which have a retail price of $209, not including the $35 engraving fee.
Company spokesman Regan said officials from Randolph Engineering, which has made eyewear for US fighter pilots since the 1970s, said they did not feel pressured by Joyce to give such a steep discount, saying “every deal is negotiable.”
Even if Randolph Engineering did not feel pressured, the transaction could still raise ethical problems. For instance, state law prohibits public officials from receiving gifts of $50 or more from private businesses and individuals.
Ethics specialists say there could also be questions about the appropriateness of giving such a generous gift to colleagues, though the Ethics Commission in 2010 created an exemption from the $50 limit for gifts given between public officials. The ethics commission has never determined how expensive these gifts may be.
It may be the thought that counts, but members of the Senate said they didn’t immediately realize how much Joyce thought of them when the upscale sunglasses arrived in cases emblazoned with their names and the state seal. He also included a pound of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts, whose headquarters are also located in Joyce’s district.
“It didn’t strike me that they were expensive because it’s my expectation that gifts senators give one another are of modest value,” said Senator James Eldridge, Democrat of Acton, who gave his colleagues a selection of products — honey, apple cider, and a cranberry muffin mix — from a Harvard orchard, at a cost of $12 apiece.
Senator Robert Hedlund, a Republican from Weymouth, didn’t even realize he received the sunglasses until he asked an aide.
“I have a $5 pair from Walmart. Now I’m upset,” joked Hedlund, upon learning that a different aide had taken the glasses for himself.
None said they were concerned they might have violated ethical standards by accepting such a generous gift from Joyce, though some said privately they thought the gift was too lavish. They said, in the past, other senators have also given gifts worth more than $50.
Joyce’s chief of staff, Ashby, insisted there was nothing unusual about the senator’s holiday present, noting that he has given substantial gifts to his 39 senate colleagues in the past.
“Senator Joyce loves the tradition of giving gifts to his colleagues that are representative of his district,” Ashby wrote. “Last year, he gave each of his colleagues a hand-carved pen made by a woodturner in Easton, and made from wood that was gathered in the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton. Those pens cost approximately $70 each.”
Campaign finance records show that Joyce paid for last year’s gifts from campaign funds, not his own money. Last week, by contrast, he used a personal credit card to pay the bill, and said he would not seek reimbursement from his campaign account.
There’s another difference from the 2013 holiday season: In 2014, Joyce was campaigning for a position in the Democratic leadership under newly elected Senate president Stanley Rosenberg. This month, Rosenberg named Joyce one of his three assistant majority leaders.
In fact, Joyce and Rosenberg toured the company’s Randolph headquarters in October, each donning a pair of Randolph Engineering sunglasses to pose with company employees, who were also wearing shades.
None of the senators returned Joyce’s gift, according to his chief of staff. And even Republicans in the Senate said they didn’t look on Joyce’s gift as a problem, but as part of the chamber’s long tradition of giving gifts that showcase their districts.
Senator Donald Humason, Republican of Westfield, called Joyce’s sunglasses “quite a cool gift,” and said they were given in the same spirit as the riding crops from a Westfield-based whip company that Humason gave to colleagues.
“There’s no ethical consideration,” said Humason, who is, fittingly, the senate’s minority whip, “because these are my friends and people I work with.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.