Mar. 19, 2012
BOSTON — Massachusetts history is smeared with episodes of corruption in every generation. In the '60s, bribes to build the Boston Common garage. In the '70s, bribes to build the UMass Boston campus ... and up until today, with three consecutive House speakers convicted of crimes.
"These are so bold and so brazen acts for somebody in the public eye, it sort of boggles the mind," said investigative journalist Maggie Mulvihill.
By day, Mulvihill works at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. By night, she helped compile data for a nationwide study to measure the risk of corruption in our state government. The study is a partnership between the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
"When you’re living in Massachusetts and hear and see this constant tally of government scandals coming from Beacon Hill, you become convinced that no one can be more corrupt than your state," she said.
But that appears to be just a perception. According to the State Integrity study, 40 other states have a greater risk of corruption than Massachusetts. The Bay State's "C" grade ranks close to the top, trailing only nine other states — including first-place finisher New Jersey. Yes, New Jersey, a state with a notorious reputation for corruption ... but one that has responded by passing laws to turn things around.
> > What grade would YOU give Massachusetts? Fill out your Mass. corruption report card.
The highs and the lows
As we dig into the Massachusetts report, we find the state scored best in the category of Redistricting with a 90 out of 100, Lobbying Disclosure with a score of 86 and Political Financing with an 85. For the most part, laws for those concerns are in place and they have some semblance of being implemented.
That's a far cry from the categories in which Massachusetts scored poorly. The Bay State failed in Public Access to Information with a 47 out of 100. The state Budget Process did barely better with a 55. Legislative Accountability passed narrowly with a 69.
Let's examine, for example, what it takes for you in Massachusetts to gain access to state information.
Can I FOIA that for you?
See the scores for individual items about public access to information.
Under the law, if you request an official record, the agency in question is required to answer the request within 10 days. But Pam Wilmot of the government watchdog group Common Cause said that sometimes agencies ignore the requests, claim records don’t exist, redact so much information that the documents are basically useless or charge exorbitant fees.
“One of the ways they bump up the costs is [to] say ‘We’re going to charge you several hundred dollars an hour for attorneys' fees to redact the names of the people involved," Wilmot said. "That adds up very, very quickly."
In one example, the Massachusetts Port Authority charged Commonwealth Magazine more than $1500 for the appointment book of its executive director. In another case, Mulvihill's Center for Investigative Reporting requested records of juveniles charged with murder in the past 15 years. They were told it would cost $55,000 to retrieve the documents.
Wilmot said some of the delays and price tags seem designed to drive media organizations and private citizens away: "It seems like the fees are put there to quash the request. To make the requester go away.”
One for you, two for me
Even though Massachusetts has a failing grade for public access to information, at least there's a process ... which is more than you can say about the state budget. See the scores for individual items about the state budget.
The study found the state budget process is shrouded in secrecy. Some of the key decisions on how your money is spent are made in private, out of earshot of the public and the press. There’s no dramatic floor debate. Committee votes are not recorded. Lawmakers emerge into the public eye only after agreements have been made.
Among all 50 states, Massachusetts ranks fourth from the bottom in its state budget process.
So what, if anything, can be done to reduce the risk of corruption in Massachusetts government? Mulvihill, the Massachusetts reporter behind our results, is hoping the State Integrity report card will help inspire lawmakers and citizens to agitate for reform. "The big question now is, will there be more reform?" she said. "We still have a lot of problems in Massachusetts."
> > What are the biggest problems with corruption in Massachusetts? Weigh in here, on Facebook or on Twitter with the hashtag #corruptionrisk.
FILL OUT YOUR MASS. CORRUPTION REPORT CARD