Lawmakers make most of travel option
In May 2016, Beacon Hill lawmakers gathered inside the Senate chamber to make history: They voted overwhelmingly to bar public discrimination against transgender people in what advocates hailed as a giant leap forward for civil rights.
But Senator Marc R. Pacheco didn’t cast a vote that day.
The Senate’s third-highest-ranking member was 4,000 miles away in Austria, delivering a speech on climate change in the picturesque mountain village of Fresach, his travel costs picked up by Austrian groups. He was the only member of the Senate who missed the chance to move the momentous bill forward.
This was just one of nearly 50 trips — all subsidized by outside groups — that the Taunton Democrat has taken since January 2013. And each was made possible by what one watchdog calls a “galactic-sized loophole” in state ethics regulations, one that Pacheco and scores of lawmakers take advantage of, according to a Globe analysis of more than 600 disclosures filed by legislators.
Members of the Massachusetts House and Senate have racked up about 3,000 traveling days and accepted more than $1 million in free or subsidized flights, hotels, meals, and other travel costs since the beginning of 2013, the Globe found.
Many trips were anchored by distinct public policy goals. A key author of gun control legislation went to a Chicago policy summit about gun violence, for example. Lawmakers considering marijuana regulation visited Colorado, where pot had been legal for years. The education committee House chairwoman went to a Washington, D.C., education conference. (One session she attended: “What is Student-Centered Learning?”)
Then, there are the jackpot junkets — itineraries that include touring the Great Wall and visiting a panda center in China; wandering through the Grand Bazaar in Marrakesh, Morocco; and enjoying an elephant village in Thailand.
Massachusetts legislators can legally accept free or subsidized travel — including from foreign governments — as long they disclose the details and value of the travel and sign a document affirming it serves a legitimate public purpose that “outweighs any special non-work related benefit” to them.
But under the state’s broadly written ethics regulations, it’s up to elected officials to police themselves. Neither the state Ethics Commission, nor the chambers’ lawyers, regularly scrutinize the filed disclosures, whose content can get exotic.
Sightseeing in a volcanic crater and at hot springs in the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean? Part of a trip with a legitimate public purpose, lawmakers said. Walking the holy streets of Jerusalem and Bethlehem? Ditto. Taking in an Irish football final where Pharrell Williams was invited to play the halftime show? Same.
Legislators emphasize that no taxpayer dollars fund their journeys, which often include weekends and holidays. And they say that any sightseeing is secondary to the policy-heavy aspects of the trips, or that the tourist activities actually benefit the state.
But taking far-flung voyages with few out-of-pocket costs because of the largesse of a foreign government, nonprofit, or company is a practice that raises questions about what the outside group is hoping to get in return for footing the bill, and underscores the indulgent rules lawmakers get to play by.
Nonelected state employees — bureaucrats — must get approval from their appointing authority before accepting a trip, under state ethics regulations. State representatives and senators are empowered to make that call themselves.
“Somebody other than the elected official should be making the determination. It’s just so obviously absurd because it just creates an enormous vulnerability,” said Greg Sullivan, a former state inspector general. “It’s too big for a loophole. It’s a galactic-sized loophole.”
Since January 2013, Pacheco, the state’s longest-serving senator, has spent the equivalent of eight months — at least 240 days — traveling to give speeches, attend conferences, and tour foreign countries, according to his disclosures.
He’s been to Austria 10 times and made nine trips to Portugal. He delivered a talk on a book he co-edited in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and visited Ireland, where an energy co-op paid for his roundtrip airfare. The Czech Republic, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Cape Verde all dot his proverbial passport. His total costs paid by others were at least $68,000 since the beginning of 2013, according to the Globe analysis. That’s the most for any lawmaker in that timeframe.
The travel, Pacheco said in a statement and lengthy interview, is something he is proud of and is policy driven, with a big focus on climate change and the Portuguese heritage he and many of his constituents share. He chairs the Senate’s Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, authored Massachusetts’ landmark 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, and says he is a sought-after voice on climate issues. And he emphasized some of his travel has been tied to leadership roles in well-respected groups like the National Conference of State Legislatures.
He underscored that he very rarely misses votes, the transgender legislation notwithstanding, and when he has, the legislative process has afforded him other opportunities to make his voice heard on those bills. (Pacheco has missed about 3 percent of Senate votes since the beginning of 2013, according to InstaTrac, the Boston-based legislative information service.)
And the senator argued that what he’s learned on international trips has directly affected state policies, such as Massachusetts’ massive wind energy effort that’s underway. Pacheco pointed to a legislative hearing where Governor Charlie Baker testified, and the senator cited his own prodding as having helped move the administration toward a more wind-focused stance. (Baker said Pacheco was “one voice,” but said his energy secretary, Matthew Beaton, and George A. Bachrach, the former president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, and the Boston company First Wind provided some of “the most important conversations.”)
“You know, you just don’t wake up and just have the knowledge about what’s going on in the offshore wind industry. You have to see it,” said Pacheco, whose Senate pay was $142,500 last year. “You have to be out on a ship and actually see these wind farms.”
But it’s not only turbine gawking that occupies him in his travels. There are also plenty of “special non-work related benefits.”
During one “energy tour” to Portugal, his hotel itinerary included a night in a restored 16th-century convent in Tavira and a stay in an 18th-century baroque palace, that, in addition to being classified as a national monument, touts a riverside infinity pool and “floor-to-ceiling opulence,” according to its website.
On a September 2017 trip to Vienna, where he was slated to give a speech, his itinerary included a day of “cultural and educational tours” in the Austrian capital — a place he had been just three months prior and six times in the previous four years.
Sullivan, the former inspector general who now works at the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, which has clashed with Pacheco on other fronts, said, “When I was in the IG’s office, we had a saying: If there were a law against this, he’d be breaking it right now. There should be a law against this.”
There were other benefits. During a return visit to Portugal in 2016, Pacheco asked the director of the foundation paying his way about getting a special deal in case he wanted to extend his time.
“If we do stay longer,” Pacheco wrote in one e-mail attached to his travel disclosure, “it would be good if they would honor the rate you are able to negotiate.”
For the Luso-American legislators conference that ran a day-and-a-half, Pacheco ended up staying four nights for free in a five-star Lisbon hotel — and at the same rate ($220) for two additional nights, according to his disclosure.
In the interview, Pacheco said he paid the “rate that the hotel asked me to pay,” adding that hotels prefer to keep guests from going “down the street” to a competitor. “I think it’s not unusual with conferences at all.”
‘More than just pandas’
During a trip several lawmakers took to China last year, there were three full days of meeting with government officials, according to an itinerary. And at least three filled with the kind of cultural tourism experiences a non-elected official might, well, pay for.
There was a day touring the renown Palace Museum, then the Great Wall; one that included a giant panda center visit; and another traveling to Guangzhou for a “cultural experience.”
The cost of it all, paid for by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries: $8,671, according to disclosures.
“Pandas are fun, but there’s more than just pandas,” state Representative Tackey Chan, a Quincy Democrat who helped organize the trip, said of the lawmakers’ visit to the Chengdu animal center. He said they learned a lot about conservation, development, and the environment.
House majority leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat who called the trip “amazing,” said it gave him a broad view of the country, which is one of the state’s top trading partners, and helped him better understand the culture and history of his Chinese-American constituents.
“You realize that the governmental problems that they have are pretty much the same as the ones we have, especially at the local levels,” said Mariano, who, as the trip leader, had frequent meetings with Communist Party officials, and as majority leader made $137,500 in House salary last year. “Philosophically, you begin to realize we’re all in the same nest.”
For that reason and others, good-government watchdogs don’t frown upon all such adventures.
Pam Wilmot, who leads Common Cause Massachusetts, said subsidized travel is positive for lawmakers when there is not a conflict of interest.
“It exposes legislators to new way of doing things. It expands their definition of what’s possible or advisable,” she said. “One of the problems I often see with Massachusetts state government is lack of exposure to new ideas — you know, ‘How we’ll do it is how we’ve always done it.’ ”
Wilmot said if legislators are talking with officials and going to meetings one day, and seeing pandas and the Great Wall on others, “I have a hard time getting exercised about it. A lot of these lawmakers wouldn’t have the opportunity to go any other way.”
The desire for those sorts of subsidized experiences is one many lawmakers appear to share. Since 2013, they have collectively visited at least 31 countries, plus Taiwan and the West Bank, the Globe found.
It’s how they justify the travel that varies.
This summer, Senate President Karen E. Spilka jetted to France for a conference put on by the National Conference of State Legislatures in Normandy to “sharpen the leadership skills I will need to ensure the Senate’s continued legislative success,” she wrote in her filing.
During the six-day event, according to the program, there were a total of 7.5 hours of specific leadership programming, with the rest of the time devoted to meals and visits to top historical sites such as Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, and a C-47 flight simulator. Spilka aides said, however, the site visits were part of the leadership training, not separate from it.
After the conference, Spilka, who made $147,700 in Senate salary last year, extended her France trip “on personal time using her own personal funds,” according to a spokesman, before heading home on a flight paid for by the NCSL.
House Speaker pro Tempore Patricia A. Haddad has jetted to eight foreign countries and Taiwan in five-plus years. Her disclosures have her walking the streets of Jerusalem in 2013 to help “promote the interests of the Commonwealth” and visiting top tourist sites in Casablanca and Marrakesh to “explore opportunities to increase tourism from Morocco in Massachusetts.”
Haddad, a Somerset Democrat, declined to be interviewed about her subsidized travels, but she spoke briefly to the Globe Tuesday after returning from a trip with more than a dozen other legislators to Lisbon and the Azores — a sojourn that also included spouses of some lawmakers.
“Everything that I have done has been declared and put into the disclosures as we have to do by law,” she said walking outside Logan International Airport.
Asked about scheduled visits to an “elephant village” and “crocodile show” on a 2016 Thailand trip, Haddad said it’s “what you go to see in the country. You go to see part of their culture to put what they do in perspective.”
Pressed on how such excursions benefit her constituents and the state, Haddad said, “When you have people of different cultures who come into your district, you’re aware of what’s important to them.”
In a e-mail on Thursday, Haddad, who made $132,500 in House salary last year, added, “All travel serves a legitimate purpose.”
A brief recess
Few if any House members have accepted more in free travel than Antonio F. D. Cabral, who’s run up a tab of nearly $30,000 — paid by others — to places like Lisbon and the Azores.
But no trip matched his May 2017 trek to East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, paid for by the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
At $12,103, it was the most any state lawmaker accepted for a single trip in the years the Globe reviewed. And it meant Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who made a House salary of $112,500 last year, could spend four days in Southeast Asia to attend the country’s presidential inauguration and, according to his itinerary, enjoy a Dili beach boat cruise and tour a coffee cooperative.
He also was there to accept the country’s highest civilian honor, bestowed by Timorese officials who called him “tireless in advocating” for Timorese people when they were under Indonesian occupation. (Cabral, for example, filed bills in the late 1990s seeking to limit investments in Indonesia.)
Cabral defended the travel, saying in a statement his advocacy for the tiny nation of 1.3 million is followed closely in New Bedford, and that the dialogue the trip opened could bloom into “mutually beneficial” trade and academic relationships.
So, after days in a faraway land hailed for its bountiful coral reefs and marine life, he returned to Boston on a Wednesday — and headed “straight to the State House,” an aide said.
In the House chamber, business was already humming, with lawmakers moving to sew up a supplemental spending bill.
Cabral didn’t vote on that one, according to House records. He also missed the roll call establishing a quorum. Then, just before 3 p.m., formal activity halted, according to a State House News Service report of the session.
“Rep. Mariano called a brief recess,” it read, “while Rep. Cabral returned to the chamber.”