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Conflict of Interest and the Israel Lobby: a Junket for State Senators

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Last December, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), a pro-Israel lobbying organization, provided an expense-paid, ten-day trip to Israel for ten Massachusetts senators (including Senate President, Stanley Rosenberg).

As the trip, valued at more than $4,000 per senator, was being arranged in early October, the Senate passed a pro-Israel resolution that “strongly discourages any actions…that would… undermine… relations” with Israel. The intended target of that language was the growing BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement in the U.S. In an October 26 press release, JCRC applauded passage of the resolution.

The resolution and gift travel to Israel raise two important issues.  First, they imply unconditional state support of an apartheid regime.  Why should state senators, who have no foreign policy role, feel compelled to endorse by their presence a nation that violates international law through its brutal occupation, its building of illegal settlements and its siege of Gaza?

Moreover, the senators ignored the inherent conflict of interest in accepting an expensive travel gift from an interested lobbying organization.

In both state and federal government, conflict of interest and the appearance of conflict of interest by elected or appointed employees erode citizen trust in government.  Lobbyist gifts to public employees are a form of corruption.

Massachusetts laws prohibit such employees, including elected officials, from accepting gifts and gratuities “valued at $50 or more.”  However, a regulatory exemption by the state Ethics Commission allows for the payment of travel costs where the travel has a “legitimate public purpose.” The regulations cite as an example of public purpose: travel that promotes state tourism, economic development or education goals.

Both the law governing lobbying organizations and their agents (administered by the State Secretary) and the law governing conflicts of interest (administered by the State Ethics Commission) emphasize disclosure.  They rely on public complaints to generate enforcement recommendations to the State Secretary or the Commission.

A Massachusetts legislator accepting payment of travel expenses must file a form with the State Ethics Commission certifying that the travel serves a “legitimate public purpose” and that such purpose outweighs any personal benefit to the legislator or the organization giving the gift. The disclosure form requires the legislator, not the Commission to determine that the trip serves a legitimate public purpose.

The 2015 JCRC tour itinerary was filled with tourist visits to cultural sites and meetings on Israel’s political and security challenges.  Almost nothing in the program addressed the economic development, business relations and technology issues cited in the senators’ written determinations of public interest.

Had the Ethics Commission reviewed the proposed trip itineraries, it might well have concluded that no “legitimate public purpose” was served–or that any public purpose was far outweighed by the evident conflict of interest.

Without Commission oversight of lobbying organization gifts to elected officials, legislators may be tempted to make self-serving determinations of “legitimate public purpose.” It is not enough to rely on the public to generate enforcement through the complaint process.

In a December 16 Boston Globe podcast, Senate President Rosenberg opined that state ethics laws are “way overreaching.”  Given its lack of oversight of the JCRC gift travel, the State Ethics Commission would appear to agree. Indeed, the Senators’ ethical lapse has been compounded by the Commission’s tacit approval of the lobbying gift and its acceptance of what appear to be serious defects in ethics law regulation.

One may question the validity of the public purpose exemption.  If a proposed trip serves a legitimate public purpose, why not require the elected official to use state funds rather than gift money from a lobbying organization?

The disclosure form that the Commission uses to document the travel exemption lacks sufficient information.  Why not require the elected official to state whether the paying organization has an interest in any past or pending legislation and whether that organization has engaged in any lobbying with respect to such legislation?

Over 1,200 Massachusetts citizens and nonprofit organizations voiced objections to the JCRC Israel trip, in part because of its implicit endorsement of the Netanyahu regime and in part because of the  evident conflict of interest.  Disregarding such claims of inappropriateness and impropriety, the ten senators went ahead on what is now regarded by many citizens as a political junket, paid for by an interested lobbying organization.

The December gift trip (only the latest of what has become an annual junket) has highlighted the need for changes in the Commission’s administration of the Massachusetts Conflict of Interest Law.

The Commission should amend its regulations by deleting the “legitimate public interest” travel exemption.

In the meantime, it should begin to review the disclosure statements and stop any trips paid for by lobbying organizations that have an interest in specific legislation before the legislature.  Other states with conflict of interest problems should take notice.

Contrary to Senate President Rosenberg, rules limiting conflict of interest and apparent conflict of interest are not “way overreaching.”  Instead, they are under-reaching and under-enforced.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

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