At Public Law Conference, Harshbarger decries culture of ethics abuses

Issue July/August 2009 By Bill Archambeault


Harshbarger, senior counsel at Proskauer Rose LLP in Boston, recently sat on the Governor's Task Force on Public Integrity, which issued a report in January calling for a number of specific changes to stanch ethics violations by improving oversight and enforcement. Officials need the tools to investigate and enforce violations, he said, expressing "deep disappointment" in a "culture" that tolerates ethical abuses.

"Democracy erodes when people lose confidence that government is representing them," he said.

Gov. Deval Patrick appointed the task force last fall amid high-profile investigations, including the arrests of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner. Former Massachusetts Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi, who resigned in January, was indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges in June.

"The shocking part is that we needed to wait this long to give public officials the tools to do their jobs," Harshbarger told the audience. "To hold public officials accountable, you have to have the tools."

He said the state's Ethics Commission needs to be strengthened, the attorney general needs powers similar to those held by the U.S. attorney general, and public officials need more power to investigate ethical violations instead of always depending on the attorney general's office for enforcement.

Harshbarger, who said he was proud to have been a public servant, was also president and CEO of Common Cause in Washington, D.C., a national nonprofit citizen's lobby and government watchdog group from August 1999 to November 2002 after he was defeated as the Democratic candidate for governor in 1998.

Harshbarger said that Patrick, who he considers a friend, needs to take action. "It's time for the governor to stand up and be counted. At some point, you have to take a stand."

With the nation in an economic crisis and elected officials spending billions of dollars in stimulus money, the public needs to have faith in their integrity, he said.

"Today, government matters more than it has ever mattered," Harshbarger said.

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger delivered an impassioned call for ethics and lobbying reform during his keynote speech at the Massachusetts Bar Association's Third Annual Public Law Conference in Boston on June 10.