It’s no secret that Massachusetts state government keeps a lot of secrets. You don’t have to go far to hit a wall that either keeps the information hidden or keeps the doors to the meeting room closed.
The Legislature, which has a specific exception that allows it to close the door on most committee meetings and caucuses, has been working in recent weeks on next year’s budget – in secret – and churning through hundreds of requests for funds for local projects, also in secret. That speaks to the culture of Massachusetts government that many people don’t get to know.
The past week brought two more examples of the private nature of state agencies.
In one case, the Boston Globe reported the Massachusetts State Police acknowledged the agency destroyed years-old traffic tickets as much as a year after it was notified about an internal audit of overtime abuse by troopers. Those tickets are key evidence in this lengthy investigation, which already has lead to indictments against many troopers and supervisors, and the resignations of some.
In light of revelations about the state police destruction of traffic citations, federal prosecutors working on the OT abuse case said the loss of those records will prevent them from looking into how far back this payroll scandal extends.
“Wow. I’m dumbfounded about hearing this,” former state inspector general Gregory Sullivan told the Globe. “This is blatant, outrageous, and worse than the underlying crime. It’s 10 times more serious.”
Fast forward to the news that the state Department of Environmental Protection admitted it gave the green light to a controversial proposed natural gas compressor station in Weymouth based on air samples that looked at 40 different toxins – not results on tests for 64 different potential toxins the agency had requested. State House News Service reported DEP officials became aware they had received only two-thirds of the laboratory results they had requested and received the full data set late last Monday afternoon. DEP then waited three days to turn over the full data to project opponents, until the day before a hearing of their appeal of the DEP’s approval.
These cases of secrecy are different, and the motivations may vary. As far as the legislative budget meetings go, lawmakers have made a practice of keeping those doors closed until the final numbers and projects are agreed upon so the public only sees the final version. That gives little or no change for anyone to weigh in or even know which departmental budgets were cut or increased and what local projects went into the trash bin.
The state police scandal, and this latest revelation about records destruction, should make every taxpayer angry, given the conspiring and thievery that already has been uncovered.
The DEP case still has unanswered questions about why the agency didn’t realize the testing lab didn’t send all of the data, and who decided to delay release to the project’s opponents in a timely way.
While different, all three cases speak to the culture of secrecy in our state government that needs to be eliminated.
More than a year ago, Gov. Charlie Baker and state police Col. Kerry Gilpin vowed to reform the state police, in light of ongoing state and federal probes.
“One of the most critical requirements necessary for us to fulfill our mission is to have the trust and confidence of the citizens we serve,” Gilpin said at the time.
Some of their initiatives – disbanding the dysfunctional Troop E and establishment of a check-in system to curb no-show shifts by troopers – are positive. But others are stalled, and the administration doesn’t appear to be placing a high priority on following through with the promises.
The governor can’t force the Legislature to open its doors but he can demand more transparency from agency heads. He should take a strong public stand to condemn the destruction of state police records and obfuscation by the DEP. It’s time he made clear he believes the public has a right to know.