The transparency trap in Massachusetts

September 4, 2017

 

In 2015, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts received a D+ grade on its “integrity report card,” an investigative tool formulated by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit investigative journalism organization. Through its integrity report card, the CPI aims to diminish state governments’ potential for corruption by encouraging transparency and responsibility. The CPI partnered with Global Integrity, another corruption watchdog group, to release a full report on State Integrity, detailing areas where all 50 state governments upheld practices of transparency or sunk to ways of corruption.

In their reports State Integrity 2012 and State Integrity 2014, the CPI and Global Integrity evaluated state governments’ administrative and anti-corruption policies. The first investigation was published in 2012, formulating a baseline of the integrity of each state government across the country. The 2014 report delineates state governments’ recent successes and downfalls in corruption over the past few years, as well as evaluates the change in integrity based on the “strengths and weaknesses of institutional safeguards applied against corruption in each state.” Such strengths and weaknesses refer to how states foster “openness, transparency, and accountability” in their governments.

The report ranks each state according to the thirteen indicators shown below. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the rankings reflect whether a state has laws in place to prevent certain abuses and whether the government actually puts into practice such preventive measures. Figure 1 displays Massachusetts’ “integrity report card,” which consists of the Commonwealth’s grades and rankings regarding its anti-corruption policies. Grades shown in the second column reflect numerical marks given by numerous individual researchers who evaluated each indicator category. Rankings in the third column represent where the state stood among the other 49 states within a specific category.

Figure 1.

While Massachusetts received an overall D+ in its anti-corruption and transparency measures, the state received even lower grades in many other key issue areas.

The grades listed above look hardly satisfactory, yet the rankings of Massachusetts against other states shows that this lack of transparency is not unique to the Bay State. In fact, Massachusetts ranks 11th in the country for transparency, even with a dismal D+. This ranking represents a drop from a C in 2012, yet back then the state ranked 12th in the country, reflecting a trend of decreasing transparency across the nation.

Massachusetts’ subpar performance should not be the standard set for the rest of the U.S., as the Commonwealth has a long history of and continues to experience issues with corruption and a lack of transparency. The idea that Massachusetts has increased its stature among other states despite a drop in marks is disheartening, meaning that the U.S. as a whole is lessening its transparency and anti-corruption mechanisms.

The only “A” that Massachusetts received in 2015 was in political financing. The CPI remarks that this “bright spot is due to serious data-driven accountability in campaign finance.” According to the questions asked of investigative journalists, this means that there are legal regulations stipulating limits to donations to candidates and political parties, as well as limits on candidates’ use of campaign contributions. Additionally, in practice, these laws are usually upheld. The only area where investigators deemed campaign finance laws were not always upheld was in regards to personal use of campaign contributions.

On the other hand, in areas such as public access to information, judicial accountability, and lobbying disclosure, the Commonwealth received an “F.” Investigators determined that Massachusetts does not give its citizens a legal right to access government information through a “defined mechanism.” In other words, there is no specified method for citizens to request and obtain public records, so accessing such information can be onerous and complicated. The CPI’s analysis demonstrated that Massachusetts has a statute on the books that limits online access to financial statements filed “by legislators, judges, elected officials, and high-ranking state employees.” The investigation concludes that there is no real open data law which requires the government to publish data online in open format. This means that while documents are technically available to the public, online documents in screen-accessible formats are not necessarily easy to find or obtain. They also corroborate that lobbying disclosures have no “uniform auditing process” and various loopholes exist for those who wish to influence lawmakers without registering their lobbying activity. Additionally, lobbying disclosure information was not deemed available in open data format, nor are disclosure reports independently audited.

Other government accountability indicators scored low for Massachusetts, including executive, legislative and judicial accountability, each of which received a D grade or lower. Such categories include the accountability and transparency of the governor and state agencies, state lawmakers, and the Supreme Judicial Court. These dismal rankings in each section call into question a 1973 state law that exempts Massachusetts state legislature, judiciary and the governor’s office from open records laws.

So why do Massachusetts’ poor grades matter? The mission of the CPI and the purpose of the State Integrity reports emphasize that exposing corruption and the lack of transparency practices should ignite movements for change in public and private institutions. For example, following this report, lawmakers put forth a bill to ease access to governor’s office records. The bill would allow individuals who go to court against public officials to obtain public records to have their attorney costs paid for by the state of Massachusetts. The bill also proposed a cap on fees for public records search requests.

Unfortunately, The Boston Globe reporter Laura Krantz confirmed in March 2017 that no such bill has passed and Massachusetts remains one of only two states to claim that the governor’s office is exempt from public records laws stemming from the Freedom of Information Act. Instead, Governor Charlie Baker, who ran his gubernatorial campaign on transparency and ending corruption, charged a legislative commission to determine whether or not the governor’s office, legislature, and judiciary should be included in public records laws. Pamela Wilmot, director of Common Cause Massachusetts, deemed the Bay State “a culture of secrecy” in terms of transparency and open records. In fact, a guide to understanding Massachusetts open records laws showed that there are nineteen pages of exemptions.

Despite these specific exceptions, public documents and records are often found to be time-intensive, expensive, and difficult to obtain. Krantz documents in her March piece that Governor Baker’s office failed to respond to the Globe’s request for some of the office’s records. Todd Wallack reported in 2015 that the Globe had to sue the Boston and North Andover police departments to obtain “police reports, mug shots, and prison booking logs.” Bridgewater State University, a government entity within the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, charged a newspaper $60,000 to send over documentation of six weeks’ worth of emails. Nicole Dungca lists numerous expensive records requests involving the Globe and other institutions. George Levine, a reporter for the non-profit new organization MuckRock, documented a fee estimate of over $312,000 for five years of Massachusetts Department of Corrections data.

Additionally, these bad grades reflect citizens’ confidence in their government, as well of their perceptions of what occurs within the government. When people are kept in the dark about the inner-workings of their government, they feel fear and lose interest in government proceedings, and keeping government accountable. Reporter David Sharfenberg articulates frustration about the state of opaque politics in the Bay State: “If you want to see your government in action, just take a seat in the gallery high above the Massachusetts House of Representatives... Well, it doesn’t really amount to much. All the important stuff was worked out ahead of time, behind closed doors.” State legislators are able to exempt themselves from a Massachusetts Open Meeting Law by holding secret caucus-style meetings before debates on the floor of the legislature. Unlike House or Senate proceedings, these secret meetings are not recorded or transcribed, and no records are available for public access. In a legislative incident in early 2017, the Massachusetts legislature held a vote, given little time for debate and almost no time for public comment, on 45 percent pay raises for legislative leaders and top state officials. Governor Baker accused Democratic leaders of pushing the legislation through before allowing public commentary, yet the governor did little to reveal whether he had put an effort into persuading lawmakers to reject the bill. In 2015, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, the presiding member over the Massachusetts House of Representatives, stated that privacy on Beacon Hill allows the decision-making process to move faster--a startling comment coming from the City on the Hill. Clearly, this has been the modus operandi in Massachusetts for some time. Unfortunately, it seems that lawmakers don’t want the public to be involved in government as much as possible, as it slows down the legislative process.

Citizens of Massachusetts should find this intentional lack of transparency in their local government frightening and unacceptable. The analysis provided by the CPI is important because it demonstrates a decline in transparency in Massachusetts government. The Massachusetts Constitution, a document modeled on the United States Constitution, states this fundamental issue in its preamble: “The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government… is to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights.” Transparency abuses, no matter their manifestations, are attacks on the rights afforded citizens by their social contract with the government. If citizens are not able to know and understand the policies of their own state government, they cannot know if said government is dutifully upholding their rights, nor will they know when those rights are being stripped away from them. The transparency trap is a slippery slope. Abuses start off small, such as a government overcharging individuals and organizations for access to its public records. However, if the state government is left unaccountable and unchecked, greater misuses of power and undermining of citizens’ rights will occur.

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