BOSTON Is Massachusetts more susceptible to corruption than other states? A nationwide survey released Monday tries to answer that question by measuring the risk of corruption in each state.
Despite Massachusetts’ convicted State House leaders and recent high-profile scandals, the state scored relatively well in the State Integrity Investigation, coming in with the 10th highest score.
No state received an A, only five received B grades, and Massachusetts received a C. The state’s lowest scores were in areas such as the state budgeting process and access to public records.
“I think they’re being pretty lenient with the grading,” said Michael Morisy, the co-founder of Muck Rock, a Boston-based website that helps people file Freedom of Information Act requests.
Morisy has ushered through more than 50 public records requests in Massachusetts and more than 900 requests from around the country.
“Massachusetts is one of the worst states, and we file public records requests in 11 states and at the federal level,” Morisy said. “Massachusetts is one of the worst states in responding, and in responding by the deadline, to public records requests.”
Morisy says even though Massachusetts public record law requires agencies to provide records within 10 days and to provide them at a “reasonable cost,” the rules aren’t always followed and there are no serious consequences for violators.
Open government advocates across the state echo that.
“I put a request in in May and it took until Dec. 27 to resolve it,” said Paul Johnson, founder of the website fixcarver.com. “It takes that long to get a complaint through the process and then you find out they just slap their hands.”
Johnson has been monitoring officials in his hometown of Carver for years. Carver is a small town of about 11,000 residents among cranberry bogs in southeastern Massachusetts. About four years ago Johnson started the website because he was frustrated by what he says is an arbitrary process to get the records of government business.
“We call it the Cranberry Cosa Nostra,” Johnson said. “If you’re one of the ruling elite you get favored treatment, you’ll get all the information you want.”
Advocates like Johnson and Morisy cite examples of government agencies charging sometimes hundreds, even thousands of dollars, for records. They’ve appealed to Secretary of State William Galvin, the overseer of the state’s public records. Galvin declined to comment on the the study’s findings.
The state watchdog agency that investigates Massachusetts government is the Office of Inspector General Gregory Sullivan. He maintains that public records problems are more often because of scarce resources, not conspiracies.
“A large part of the problem in Massachusetts has to do with the fact that the laws themselves are not providing as much transparency as they should,” Sullivan said. “That’s what this study is pointing out and it’s a bona fide point. Secondly, the manpower required to respond is not there.”
Another weakness the State Integrity Investigation identified is the 18 exemptions in the law. That means some records are simply off-limits to the public.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, says there are also entire state agencies that are not bound by public records law.
“That’s whole swaths of government that actually do not have that protection in place and don’t have to comply in any way,” Wilmot said. “The Legislature, the governor’s office and, frankly, some of the constitutional offices as well.”
Massachusetts is one of about 10 states in which the public does not have even limited rights to view legislators’ records. But lawmakers say sometimes that’s necessary. A legislative committee hearing Tuesday takes up several bills designed to improve public records access.
Northampton Rep. Peter Kocot, House chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, says lawmakers are trying to balance the public’s right to know with citizens’ rights to disclose confidential information.
“Legislators every day deal with constituents who offer confidential information, whether that information is a health record, a legal record, things they don’t want made available to the public,” Kocot said. “They are coming to you based on a confidential relationship. We want to make sure that any expansion of public records law protects constituents and does not place them in jeopardy.”
The State Integrity Investigation was conducted by The Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. They developed more than 300 metrics to measure transparency in 14 categories and calculate each state’s risk of corruption. The investigation did give Massachusetts some high marks — particularly in the areas of political financing and judicial accountability.
Wilmot, of Common Cause Massachusetts, says what the investigation ultimately shows is that the democratic process works by correcting problems when they arise and making improvements.
“Are we where we want to be? No. We have a long way to go,” Wilmot said. “One of the biggest impediments is people’s cynicism and the belief that people in government are all corrupt. So citizens tune out — that’s wrong.”
But it’s easy to be cynical in Massachusetts considering the convictions of the last three House speakers and some high-profile scandals like the one currently surrounding patronage in the state Probation Department.
George Brown, Boston College law professor and former chair of the State Ethics Commission, says those are issues with political culture, and measuring that is virtually impossible.
“There’s an old State House saying, ‘You never write when you can speak, you never speak when you can nod, and you never nod when you can wink.’ That saying captures a sense that yes, there may be stuff on the books, but if we’re smart enough and shrewd enough we can figure out a way to get around it.” Brown said. “Having said that, I’m not sure I know how to measure ways to get around it.”
For its 10th place rating in the investigation, Massachusetts tied with Rhode Island, Illinois and Hawaii. The top-rated state was New Jersey and Georgia ranked last.