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


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.

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South