January 27, 2015

A recent post on Fivethirtyeight.com compared states in Ranking the States from Most to Least Corrupt. So where does Massachusetts fall?

That depends on methodology. Fivethirtyeight’s Harry Enten provided four different measures. For number of corruption convictions, Massachusetts was ranked 16; convictions per capita, 22; reporter ratings, 49; and stringency of laws, 39.

All of these methodologies interested me because I just returned from delivering a paper on corruption in Massachusetts in New Orleans (if you wonder why a Massachusetts professor was at the Southern Political Science Association meeting, look out your window). The most interesting one though was that our political reporters ranked Massachusetts the least corrupt state in the nation (no Louisiana reporter responded).

So does the perception of corruption depend upon whom you ask? Perhaps.

I presented the paper as sets of threes. First, our narrative of the three convicted speakers. Second three groups of theories we use to understand corruption: statutory and common law, academic, and political culture. Third, Daniel Elazar’s tripartite model of political subcultures in the states, of which only the moralistic and individualistic apply to Massachusetts. Fourth three recent cases – the Tim Cahill and John O’Brien state trials, and the O’Brien federal trial. I’ll focus on political culture here.

As I wrote in Piling On at CommonwealthMagazine in 2011, the three speakers narrative is a questionable one because the first two, Charles Flaherty and Thomas Finneran, should never have been pursued or had cases that were quite defensible. But the years of grinding investigation and bankrupting costs of defense coupled with the fear of actual jail time induce a plea. Many Massachusetts political observers and elected officials believe those two got a raw deal. But those folks would be categorized as Elazar’s individualists. According to Elazar’s theory, individualists see politics as transactional and are tolerant of sketchy ethical behavior unless it really goes overboard.

The secondary but very strong subculture in Massachusetts is moralistic. It regards the public good as precedent over individual advancement and takes a quite different approach to the conduct of public service, one of selfless concern for the state. In the moralistic conception there is very little tolerance for political corruption. Moralists tend to have a good deal of power – within the U.S. Attorney’s and state Attorney General’s offices for instance and at important institutions like the Boston Globe. The prosecutors tend to revere “the law” and the Spotlight Team tends to revere transparency and both think their methods can purify the grubby market of politics.

So when indictments were handed up against O’Brien and Cahill there was a culture clash between moralists and individualists.

O’Brien was first tried by Attorney General Martha Coakley for a scheme that involved O’Brien putting together a fund raiser for Cahill. In exchange Cahill would provide a Lottery job for O’Brien’s wife. Notwithstanding a Massachusetts law that forbids non-elected state public employees from fund raising, seventy-eight of eighty-eight attendees at the “time” were Probation Department employees. Nonetheless, the Suffolk County jurors found O’Brien not guilty. Coakley responded that “While some may believe that this type of behavior is 'business as usual,' we did not and do not believe that should be the case."

The second state trial concerned Cahill’s running of television ads touting the effective management of the state Lottery just as he happened to be running for governor. He was charged criminally for seeking to use his official position to obtain an “unwarranted privilege” – the enhancement of his floundering campaign. He of course maintained he was only preserving the honor of the Lottery. After a trial in which the jury could not reach a conclusion, the AG and Cahill reached a civil settlement, Coakley again defended her office against charges of overreaching.

Individualists 2, Moralists 0.

The moralists got their win of course in the federal Probation Department trial of O’Brien and two cohorts. In that one state legislators had been recommending campaign contributors and friends for jobs in the department, O’Brien had seen to it that those candidates got hired no matter how incompetent they appeared, and the department had been rewarded by the legislature with budget increases. Elazar contends that in the individualistic subculture politicians and the public alike view politics as a distinct profession and often an unsavory one. “Since a fair amount of corruption is expected in the normal course of things, there is relatively little popular excitement when any of it is found unless it is of an extraordinary character.” Since merit hiring is required for department jobs, O’Brien had to essentially run two sets of books and that is too much, even for Massachusetts jurors.

Before sentencing federal district court Judge William Young referred to “massive corruption” in the state and indicated that he would put the defendants away for a long, long time. The government asked for up to 70 months for O’Brien. Yet Judge Young sentenced O’Brien to only eighteen months. He remarked that “What we have here, in this court’s considered judgment, is fundamentally decent people utterly without a moral compass, at sea, in a field awash in political patronage.”

Elazar’s theory suggests that the court, an elite institution aligned with the moralistic culture would take harsh action against “massive corruption.” Instead, the court recognized that in Massachusetts practices that to elite notions may seem inexcusably corrupt are accepted as unremarkable by many political practitioners and the public. In a sense the depth of the state’s corrupt culture inoculates “fundamentally decent people” who have been robbed of their “moral compass” by the state’s culture of corruption from facing the full consequences of their actions.

So how corrupt is Massachusetts? It depends on who you ask.

Tim Cahill, political corruption' John O'Brien

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