Pay-to-play is rampant in Boston

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Interesting juxtaposition in the news of the week.

Sal DiMasi, the former Massachusetts House Speaker, is now on trial for allegedly taking thousands of dollars in payoffs from software company Cognos, in exchange for steering state contracts its way.

Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Tom Menino persists in publicly demanding payoffs – ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands – from a select group of local nonprofits, in the form of payments in lieu of taxes worth 25 percent of what they would owe if they were not tax-exempt.

Yes, they are tax exempt. The law says they owe no property taxes.

But, apparently, since Boston is a city of men, not laws, Menino is putting the hammer down on them so he won’t have to control spending.

If these nonprofits stand on the law rather than the “request” of a power-drunk mayor? Well, just let them see what happens the next time they come before the city for a building permit, zoning relief or any other kind of action over which the city has authority. Their application will be judged not on the merits, but on whether they have made the requisite payoff.

I wrote about this previously here, and political columnist David A. Mittell Jr. has a good column on the topic in today’s Boston Herald.

As he puts it:

Legally, these bills aren’t worth the paper they are printed on, but Mayor Tom Menino sometimes likes to establish political facts in advance of the law. The effect is strong on institutions that do not want to be in his famous doghouse when they go looking for building permits and zoning variances.

So the question is, other than it being a matter of degree, how is this kind of “pay-to-play” game any different from what DiMasi is alleged to have done?

No, the money from the nonprofits doesn’t go directly into Menino’s pocket, but it does benefit him directly – he gets millions more to spend on things like sweeter contracts for public employee unions, which will then work that much harder to re-elect him. It is both corrupt and contrary to existing law.

As Mittell and others have pointed out, there is a way to do this honestly. If nonprofits should not be exempt from property taxes, change the law.

As it is now, these “requests” carry the scent of an episode of “The Sopranos.”