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Lobbyists struggle to polish their tarnished Bay State image

LOBBYING is a legitimate profession. Its members often provide government decisionmakers with useful information. But it has a bad name in Massachusetts. A group of Bay State lobbyists are uniting to try to upgrade their image.

Through various activities, including a speakers bureau, they aim to educate the public and promote an appreciation for their role in helping legislators and members of state agencies.

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Lots of hard selling may be needed to convince some skeptics that there is nothing wrong with lobbying and that those who represent various companies and special interests on Beacon Hill are honest and also hard working.

And a recent ``guilty'' plea by one of its organizers to three counts of state income-tax evasion hardly reinforced their image-building pursuits.

William R. Delaney, whose lobbying firm last year earned more than $350,000 for its services for various businesses and associations, was fined $25,000 in Suffolk Superior Court for failing to file tax returns with the Department of Revenue for 1982, '83, and '84. During those years he received about $275,000 in lobbying fees. His state tax liability on this amounted to more than $11,000. All this, together with late-payment penalties and the court-imposed criminal fine, must be paid by the former Metropolitan Police officer-turned-lobbyist. His plea followed a Feb. 26 grand-jury indictment based on findings presented by the state attorney general's office.

The Delaney case has to be an embarrassment not only to fellow lobbyists who scrupulously pay what they owe Massachusetts each year, but also to those at the State House who may have been represented by him or his firm.

Among Delaney and Associates clients in 1987 were the New England Telephone Company, the Philip Morris Tobacco Company, and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

While misconduct by a lobbyist in connection with his job can lead to at least temporary disqualification, it is questionable whether the secretary of state has the authority to bar Delaney from representing clients before the legislature, since his crime involved another matter.

To prevent misdeeds of a nonlobbying nature by the state's professional persuaders tougher controls may be needed on those allowed to represent clients before state lawmakers and boards.

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Avoiding payment of taxes is something not to be taken lightly, Attorney General James Shannon says. ``Our tax laws apply to every individual in the commonwealth, and they will be enforced accordingly.''

Nobody should be allowed to help influence shaping of laws who, for whatever reason, has demonstrated disrespect for any law, especially one as basic as the obligation to pay taxes.

How can the public have confidence in the integrity of lawmaking, if some close to the scene, no matter how successful in presenting their client's viewpoint, have been guilty of misconduct, whether lobbying is connected or not.

Being a registered legislative agent, as lobbyists are called, is a privilege that should be reserved for those worthy of the opportunities for influence that it often involves.

There are more than 1,100 people in the commonwealth with lobbying credentials. That is a lot for the secretary of state to keep an eye on. Yet closer scrutiny may be required to weed out those unworthy to engage in the activity.

A clearer glimpse at what every lobbyist is up to may result from an important new law that will put teeth into the statute requiring all legislative agents to file a financial disclosure every six months. Henceforth, a lobbyist who misses a July 15 or Jan. 15 deadline will face strict penalties. Much could depend on how rigidly the law is enforced by the secretary of state, who has the discretion to relax compliance in cases of special hardship.

The measure, enacted late last year at the behest of Secretary of State Michael Connolly, should close the door on the late-filing practices of certain lobbyists who have been none-too-enthusiastic detailing how much they were paid and other lobbying-related expenses of their clients or associations.

Besides the automatic long-term, if not permanent, banning of lobbyists convicted of any crime, the public's best interest might be served by outlawing even indirect contributions by lobbyists and their clients to the legislative campaigns.

These tougher lobbying laws could go a lot further than lectures and other educational programs to strengthen the image of lobbying in Massachusetts.

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