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State Ethics Commission could get broader power

The task force set up by the Legislature to review state ethics laws is expected to throw its support behind granting the State Ethics Commission full regulatory authority and will hand its work off to legislative committees to consider further changes to the ethics laws.

The Ethics Commission has been pressing for full regulatory authority since the outset of the task force’s work. David Wilson, the commission’s executive director, has said recommending the commission be granted full regulatory authority is the most significant action the task force could take.

“We believe that it would enhance the commission’s ability to fully enforce the conflict of interest law, provide advice on the conflict of interest law, guide public officials and employees as to their responsibilities under the conflict of interest law if we get full regulatory authority,” Wilson said.

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Representative Peter Kocot and other members of the Legislature’s ethics task force questioned State Ethics Commission staff during the task force’s meeting Wednesday. Representative Chris Markey had previously stated opposition to granting the commission full regulatory authority, a path the task force now appears poised to take.

The Ethics Commission, which is set up as an independent agency that includes attorneys and retired judges, can already create exemptions to state ethics laws but full authority would allow it to interpret state ethics laws and produce related regulations.

Meeting on the eve of its June 1 reporting deadline, the Task Force on Integrity in State and Local Government on Wednesday voted to begin drafting a report that includes “a statement that there is a consensus among members of the task force for expanded regulatory authority for the (ethics) commission, a clear and concise listing of all specific statutory amendments . . . and a clear and concise listing of any specific policy or legal issues” raised at task force hearings.

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“I believe that there is a consensus to expand the regulatory powers of the State Ethics Commission ... I think that’s a very important thing we can recommend moving forward,” Kocot, who proposed the course of action adopted Wednesday, told staff from the Ethics Commission. “We are trying to get to a consensus on the exact nature of what that regulatory authority is and how you’re going to implement it.”

Kocot said the House and Senate committees on ethics and the committee he chairs will take the baton from the task force and continue the consideration of further changes to state ethics laws.

“I believe it makes sense to summarize the task force’s work so far in a brief narrative report and allow the House Committee on Ethics, the Senate Committee on Ethics, Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight to sift through these key ideas and concepts and see if we can continue the progress we’ve made here,” he said.

Markey, who chairs the House Ethics Committee and co-chairs the ethics task force, said the committees are the appropriate choices to “really get into how the administration of this can go forward.” Markey previously said he did not support granting the Ethics Commission full regulatory authority.

“I am very glad that the consensus on this panel on expanded regulatory authority for the Ethics Commission will be recognized,” Jennifer Miller, Senate counsel, said. “There isn’t consensus on the other issues, and so it does make sense to forward them without comment to be further developed and studied by the appropriate legislative committees.”

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The task force was formed at the suggestion of House Speaker Robert DeLeo and was originally given a deadline of March 15 to produce a report reviewing conflict of interest, financial disclosure laws, and the regulations of the State Ethics Commission. Before agreeing to the task force order, lawmakers struck directives from an earlier version to study campaign finance, lobbying, and the feasibility of extending the lobbying law to cities and towns.

The task force process, and its relationship with the Ethics Commission, has been marked by an apprehensive tone, with one lawmaker suggesting the two side were playing “a game of chicken” over which side would make known all of its proposed ethics law changes first.

Senator Cynthia Creem, a task force co-chair, said Wednesday that having the legislative committees continue the task force’s work will allow for a more thorough examination of the ethics laws and proposed changes put forth by the Ethics Commission.

“I’ve heard a lot through the process and realized that a lot of these issues are not black and white ... so I think it’s worthwhile that we have other committees study them because I thought it was one way then I read this and I thought it was another way,” Creem said. “It isn’t quite as easy as we thought.”