I commend reporter Sophie Ruehr for her incisive story on state Sen. Julian Cyr’s December trip to Israel (“Cyr Defends Trip Funded by Pro-Israel Group,” Jan. 9). I also commend the senator for his transparency and frankness. Julian Cyr deserves even more praise for addressing such priority concerns of his constituents as affordable housing, mental health, and opioid addiction. We on the Cape are fortunate to have him as our representative in the state senate. I respectfully disagree with him, however, on the ethical propriety of his lobbyist-funded trip.
Conflict of interest and the appearance of conflict by state employees erode citizen trust in government. That’s why Massachusetts laws prohibit such employees, including elected officials, from accepting gifts and gratuities valued at $50 or more. Unfortunately, a regulatory exemption by the State Ethics Commission allows legislators to accept travel gifts if they declare that the travel has a “legitimate public purpose.”
In fact, there is no official review of those declarations. An ethics commission official I spoke with by phone in 2016 explained that the commission’s role ends with the public purpose declaration. He said his colleagues rely on public complaints to generate enforcement actions.
My official complaints in 2016 and 2018 were both summarily dismissed with these words: “This matter does not warrant further action.” A lengthy legal brief to support a public complaint from Massachusetts Peace Action, a Boston-based nonprofit that advocates for more just and peaceful American foreign policy, fared no better.
Perhaps some see no problem with Senator Cyr’s trip because he returned sobered by the segregation he saw there. But there are good reasons to question the logic of regulations that forbid our representatives a $50 dinner paid for by a lobbying organization but allow for lobbyist-paid travel worth thousands of dollars.
The fact is, the group funding this trip, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), is lobbying for a bill in the legislature that would make it illegal for the state to do business with any company or individual involved in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement putting pressure on Israel to change its treatment of Palestinians.
The State Ethics Commission could amend its regulations by deleting the “legitimate public interest” travel exemption. But the very least it could do is limit the exemption to travel that is financed by parties that don’t have bills pending in the legislature.
Until money is eliminated from politics or until ethics regulations begin to be enforced, our state lawmakers must exercise their own moral judgment on whether to accept an offer of expensive gift travel — realizing that donors seldom make such offers without expecting a favor in return. If there is a legitimate pubic purpose to be served by certain travel, why not tap state funds?
L. Michael Hager is co-founder and former director general of the International Development Law Organization in Rome. He lives in Eastham.