Inspector General should get power to place witnesses under oath

There’s been no shortage of corruption and waste, or allegations thereof, in Massachusetts politics in recent years, and amid the complicated sprawl of state government it helps when multiple agencies have the ability to sniff out abuses. Glenn Cunha, the state’s new inspector general, has filed a bill asking for expanded subpoena power. This could prove a hard sell on Beacon Hill, where increased scrutiny isn’t always welcome. But it is good public policy, and should pass.

Cunha was sworn in for a five-year term in August. Currently, the law gives his office the broad power to subpoena documents. But to subpoena a witness to testify under oath, he needs approval from six members of the Inspector General Council, an eight-member board that meets quarterly. Cunha wants the authority that the attorney general and district attorneys currently have when they are readying a case for a grand jury: the power to issue a subpoena without prior approval. Of the 13 states and territories with statewide inspectors general, 10 grant those officials similar power.

Cunha, a veteran prosecutor who most recently headed the attorney general’s criminal bureau, argues that the current system — which has only been used once in the office’s history — is susceptible to leaks that could compromise an investigation. It’s also unwieldy and, in many cases, potentially unworkable. Cunha has been charged with leading the investigation into misconduct in the state’s criminal drug lab, but the recusal of some members of the council — including Attorney General Martha Coakley — could make it difficult or impossible for him to get the six votes he needs to subpoena witnesses.


And there’s other good reasons the inspector general should be able to compel testimony. Cunha argues, persuasively, that the very act of swearing under oath makes witnesses behave differently. Where some might be willing to cover up for a boss or friend in an unsworn interview, subpoenaed testimony would be subject to perjury laws. Better testimony would allow Cunha’s office to develop a stronger case to refer to state or federal prosecutors.

Some civil-liberties groups have balked at the bill because of its potential for abuse, and have expressed concern at the quiet way in which Cunha filed the request. The bill certainly deserves a thorough public airing. But fears of overreach are mitigated by the fact that the inspector general has no power to indict; Cunha must refer any cases to prosecutors, who determine whether they have enough evidence to seek an indictment. Skepticism is understandable, but Cunha’s bid smacks less of a public official grabbing power than a lawyer trying to assemble the best possible case.