Action Alert:

State Should Forbid Free Israel Trips Paid By Lobbyists

Alliance for Water Justice rally at the Massachusetts State House, July 14, 2016

On Wednesday, February 1, 2017, Massachusetts Peace Action board member Eva Moseley delivered testimony before the Task Force on Integrity in State and Local Government regarding our March 2016 complaint that it should be deemed unethical for state legislators to take gifts of free trips to Israel funded by a lobby group. Eva’s testimony was submitted in a public hearing that took place in the State House. 

 

Following is the full text of Eva’s testimony:

 

Good morning. My name is Eva Moseley, and I’m testifying on behalf of Massachusetts Peace Action.

My testimony concerns a loophole in the Conflict of Interest Law and Ethics Commission regulations that allows legislators to receive very substantial gifts from lobbying organizations. The problem came to our attention in the context of a particular situation involving gifts given by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC).

As you may know, JCRC is a lobbying organization, called a “client” under the Massachusetts Lobbying Law. JCRC retains individuals to lobby on its behalf before the state legislature, and as such, is required to register with the Secretary of the Commonwealth. 

One of JCRC’s announced objectives during 2016 was to secure passage of binding legislation “to reject the BDS campaign.” (“BDS” stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions, aimed at pressuring Israel to change its policies towards the Palestinians). 

In July 2016, an anti-BDS amendment, reported in the Jewish Advocate as “written by the JCRC,” was introduced and withdrawn the same day. The following day, JCRC issued a statement vowing to bring up similar legislation in the next legislative session, expressing confidence that it would pass.

So in July 2016 every Massachusetts legislator was on notice that he or she would soon be required to consider legislation of great interest to JCRC.

The month before the next legislative session – the current one – began, JCRC took 12 Massachusetts representatives on a free nine-day study trip to Israel. 

The travelers returned on December 12, 2016.  On December 20,  the Jewish Advocate reported that JCRC was “finalizing the language” of a new bill to combat BDS. It was indeed filed on January 20, 2017, as SD.922 and HD.779, and JCRC launched an intense lobbying campaign for it.

This is a classic conflict of interest.  No lobbying organization, including JCRC, should be allowed to give a gift of substantial value to the same legislators who have been, are, or will soon be acting on specific legislation of great interest to that organization. Similarly, legislators should not be allowed to accept gifts in such circumstances. Several factors make the conflict especially serious in this case: the value of the gift (over $4,000 per legislator), the closeness in timing between the gift and future legislative action, and that JCRC is not only lobbyist but also drafter of the bill.

A similar conflict of interest had occurred in 2015. Just three weeks after the Massachusetts Senate adopted an anti-BDS resolution written by JCRC, JCRC announced that it was taking one-quarter of the Senate on a free ten-day study trip to Israel.

The Massachusetts Conflict of Interest Law and Ethics Commission regulations prohibit gifts to legislators of $50 or more. The regulations contain an exception for travel, provided a legislator files a public disclosure stating that the travel serves a “legitimate public purpose,” and that this purpose outweighs any conflict of interest. [930 CMR 5.08(2)(d)2].

We recognize that travel can serve a public purpose. But when that travel is paid for by a registered lobbying organization with specific business before the legislature, the conflict of interest outweighs any public purpose that might be served. Such conflicts should not be allowed to continue.

Moreover, the disclosure form does not ask whether the organization paying for travel is a registered lobbying organization with specific business before the legislature. In the absence of such relevant information, it is hard to see how the legislator has any basis for weighing ethical implications.

In summary, we urge the Task Force to investigate changes in law or regulation to end the practice of registered lobbying organizations paying for legislators’ travel. Since most legislative travel is not paid for by lobbying organizations, this change would not affect most such travel. We would gladly work with the Task Force to suggest concrete changes for this purpose.

Thank you.

Eva Moseley, Board Member of Massachusetts Peace Action