FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

by

shutterstock_119874823

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.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 23, 2017
Clancy Sigal
Who’s Up for This Long War?
Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail