Sound and Fury At the Judiciary Hearing

Conflict Over State Building Contracts

Five separate Massachusetts state agencies are currently investigating alleged political corruption and improprieties associated with the McKee-Berger-Mansueto, Inc. [MBM]--University of Massachusetts construction contract. The $6 million contract between the state and the MBM construction company led last February to the convictions of former state senators Joseph J.C. DiCarlo and Ronald C. MacKenzie on charges of extorting money from the company. The allegations of misconduct, however, did not end there, and the state is continuing to investigate the relations between MBM and state officials.

In an attempt to combine the existing probes into one overall investigation of the charges of political corruption and maladministration within the state's building and construction system, State Reps. Phillip W. Johnston and Andrew H. Card Jr. drafted House Bill 4632, which was approved on Wednesday by the Joint Judiciary Committee of the legislature. The committee held a public meeting on March 23 to hear testimony on the bill.

Gardner Auditorium in Boston filled up slowly Thursday morning. The Joint Judiciary Committee had not vigorously publicized its public session on Bill H4632. Reporters and cameras and microphones and pages and staff aides were around, but relatively few citizens entered the hallowed halls of state government. Towards noon, when the Massachussetts governor and the attorney general, and various legislators had testified and the T.V. lights had begun to dim with the 6 o'clock news footage already shot, the citizenry emerged. It was a strange collection--a junior high school class observing the workings of government, a few members of citizen action groups performing their lobbying duties and senior citizens expressing their dissatisfaction with the system they no longer believed in.

Jerry Williams, a reporter for WNEX radio, then stood up and walked to the podium, followed by what looked like a page boy carrying a briefcase. He faced the panel of senators and representatives and dumped the contents of the case out on the table. A torrent of letters fell amongst the microphones. Williams proceeded, "I am here today to act as a surrogate for 8432 families throughout the commonwealth of Massachusetts... they're unanimous in that they are indicating to me that they are tired as hell and they don't want to take it anymore." The public erupted. State Sen. Alan Sisitsky, Senate chairman of the committee, hammered his gavel to hush the applause. "We do have rules that govern legislative proceedings," Sisitsky said, "that are different from the rules that may govern talk shows and with respect to the rules that govern legislative proceedings we hear people that support legislation and people that oppose legislation, and the legislation pending before us is House Bill 4632."

A ten-minute discussion followed between Sisitsky and Williams, who claimed he would show specific support for the bill if he were allowed to read some of the mail. The chairman, unaccustomed to the open proceedings and irked by the public's applause insinuated the letters were not specific comments on the legislation and thus did not warrant airing.

After Williams had read a few letters, the chairmen of the committee interrupted by saying that he need not proceed--they had gotten the point. The audience disagreed. A woman shouted, "You guys work for us--let him read more." And the debate continued with the legislators acting more like zoc keepers subduing an unruly band of hyenas than a panel of elected representatives attentive of their constituents.

But amidst this circus of an open meeting, House Bill 4632 did receive an airing and won substantial support. The bill was submitted to the House in late january in response to State Atty. Gen. Francis X. Bellotti's suggestion that perhaps a blue ribbon panel should be set up to look into the entire MBM-UMass contract.

Reps. Andrew Card and Phillip Johnston subsequently co-authored H4632, the bill which enlarges on Bellotti's suggestion. The bill as drafted proposes the establishment of a Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate not only the MBM-UMass contract, but, in the bill's language, "the existence and extent of corrupt practices concerning contracts related to the construction of state and country buildings from January 1, 1969, to the present."

The bill also recommends the commission consist of 11 members, one state senator elected by a majority of the Senate, one representative elected by the House, the attorney general or his designee, the state auditor or his designee and seven gubernatorial appointees. Only one of the governor's appointees may come from within the government; the remaining six which must include a registered architect, a member of the state bar, a certified public accountant, and a registered professional engineer, will be citizens who have not had contractual relations with the state for the last five years.

The most controversial stipulations in the bill, however, grant the commission the powers of subpoena, full immunity, and prosecution.

These were the central provisions discussed by the various speakers at the hearing before the Joint Judiciary Committee on Thursday. "The committee should consider carefully. Sisitsky said in his testimony, "the scope of the investigation, the power of subpoena, the question of immunity, and the membership of the proposed commission." And despite the confusion created by the committee's apparent intolerance of the public, they did just that.

State Rep. Johnston, co-author of H4632, presented the committee with what he felt should be the major focus of the proposed commission. "Is the MBM case an isolated instance of corruption, or is it part of a routine pattern?" he asked the committee. Johnston answered his question by saying, "We propose that the commission conduct a comprehensive examination of the system; to limit the scope of the investigation to the MBM contract alone would not resolve the doubts and suspicions about the extent of corruption within the entire building system."

He added that limiting the commission's scope to state and country contracts would prevent the investigation from turning into a "witch-hunt".

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, whose appearance before the committee early in the day attracted most of the cameras, agreed with Johnston. In fact, the governor had no objection to any of the provisions in the bill. "If we are going to convince the people of this state that every aspect of this problem has been looked into, and that the best judgement has been made as to what happened and what should be done in the future, we should create the Blue Ribbon Commission without delay," Dukakis said.

Bellotti, who is in the midst of his own investigation into the alleged improprities committed in the MBM-U Mass case did not share the governor's enthusiasm. He questioned the feasibility of investigating every state and country building contract entered into over the last nine years. He added the general nature of the inquiry could "interfere directly with pending criminal prosecutions and civil cases being handled by the executive branch."

Thaddeus Buczko, state auditor since 1964, however, congratulated the bill's authors on the inclusion of county contracts. "I am particularly supportive of the fact that the commission will be empowered to look at all contracts, not only at the level of state government but also at county government." he said.

In testifying for the adoption of the bill in its present form, Johnston urged the retention of the subpoena provision. He argued the commission would be nothing more than a "joke" without the authority to summon those individuals who have information pertinent to the investigation. The subpoena power would also invest the commission with the rights to obtain relevant information from other branches in the government currently pursuing their own investigations.

Bellotti, who would either serve on the commission or designate a subordinate to the position, told the committee he would not comply with the stipulation if the information requested applied to pending prosecutions. He seemed to be questioning the principle of accountability between branches of the government when he said, "Legislative demands for information about pending cases jeopardize successful prosecution and interfere with an executive function in violation of the doctrine of separation of powers."

The question of immunity encountered opposition even among committee members. Some members said that transactual immunity is perhaps too broad a power with which to equip the commission. The attorney general and various committee members recommended a policy of "use immunity"--immunity with regard to specifics--as a substitute for the across-the-board "transactual immunity." Bellotti encouraged the committee to specifically delinate within the bill the circumstances under which the power of immunity would be used. Without such an amendment, he said, "the special commission poses a direct threat to effective prosecutorial efforts."

The bill's provision allowing the commission to make direct presentments to grand juries brought additional references to the doctrine of separation of powers from Bellotti. He insisted the power of prosecution remain with the executive branch. The majority of the committee members, all lawyers, seemed to agree. State Rep. Roland Orlandi, one of the committee members, said the particular provision is "out of the question," as it is unconstitutional. Card attributed the misunderstanding of the provision to a mistake in the bill's language. He spoke of the drafters' intention, saying "The commission as it is outlined here is not intended to be a prosecutor." He added he hoped the committee would reword the bill, removing the commission's power to direct presentment.

A lunch recess and an afternoon session at which any citizen could testify followed the morning's official testimony. Gone were the cameras, gone were the staff aides, gone were even a majority of the committee members. The members who did return bore their task of listening to the public with an uninterested air. The citizens' words--some yelling about the coming of anarchy, others of the negligence of the representatives, one suggesting the requirements for membership on the commission exclude lobbyists--fell on seemingly deaf ears.

All in all, the hearing on Thursday epitomized the problems not only of state government but of all levels of government. The citizens' apathy, which stems from government corruption, is compounded by the attitude of their representatives involved in the in-house clean up. The citizens' increasing frustration was best expressed by a man, who in his words, "pulled myself out of the gutter" and in his testimony threatened the committee with the coming of anarchy.

Johnston testified that the allegations of political payoffs and corruption have damaged the people's confidence in their government. "I believe," he said, "that an independent investigation of these charges is the only possible way we can restore that confidence." Judging from the Judiciary committee's performance, the effort is none too soon in coming.