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Joan Vennochi

Beacon Hill's double standard?

By Joan Vennochi
November 13, 2008
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THEY ARE parsing morality on Beacon Hill.

As a result, State Senator Dianne Wilkerson is being shoved out the door. The Senate voted unanimously to demand her resignation, after she was charged with accepting $23,500 in bribes from federal agents posing as businessmen trying to get a liquor license.

State Senator James Marzilli will walk out on his own terms and schedule, after he was charged with sexually harassing four women in Lowell earlier this year. Marzilli pleaded not guilty to the charges and did not seek reelection. He continues to be paid and will receive an increase in his pension if he remains in office until January, as he plans. Wilkerson would get the pay and pension benefit, too, if she isn't ousted first.

If she doesn't resign, colleagues seem determined to vote her out of office, pending the results of an ethics committee investigation. In the meantime, she was stripped of a committee chairmanship. Marzilli remains in office and still technically in charge of a legislative committee, although he has not returned to Beacon Hill since the charges.

Their colleagues draw distinctions between these two disgraced lawmakers.

Marzilli had no prior convictions or track record for getting into trouble; Wilkerson previously broke federal tax and campaign finance laws.

Wilkerson allegedly used her office to benefit and enrich herself. Marzilli did not. He's just an alleged pervert.

After his arrest, Marzilli checked himself into a psychiatric facility and his lawyer announced that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Wilkerson simply looked out of her mind in surveillance photos that showed her allegedly stuffing cash under her shirt in a restaurant located only a short distance from the State House.

During a recent appearance on WTKK-FM, Governor Deval Patrick said it's time for Wilkerson to resign and said he would favor the Senate expelling her if she refused. He also said he would support the expulsion of Marzilli. But the Senate looks at the Marzilli situation and remembers Carl Stanley McGee, an official in the Patrick administration, who was arrested last February and charged with sexually assaulting a teenager in a steam room. The charges were eventually dropped. Until then, McGee was placed on unpaid leave, but was not asked to resign.

But only one distinction really matters. The Senate is angry at Wilkerson because she dragged the Senate into her mess.

Senators who received grand jury subpoenas in the Wilkerson case are the angriest. They include Senate President Therese Murray, who was mentioned in an FBI affidavit as being present at a private meeting with Wilkerson. Murray denies being at the meeting. She and other lawmakers were allegedly persuaded by Wilkerson to help secure the liquor license Wilkerson was allegedly bribed to support.

Wilkerson's mud splattered far - from the State House to City Hall and onto Mayor Thomas Menino, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, and a development firm owned by Arthur Winn, a longtime political benefactor of Wilkerson's.

No one besides Wilkerson has been accused of wrongdoing - yet. But the photos and account of what allegedly happened are so shocking, anyone who helped Wilkerson also stands accused of terrible judgment.

The lawmakers' move to punish Wilkerson is all about them, not about her. The desire for such extreme separation, the sooner the better, is unprecedented in state Senate history.

The effort to remove Wilkerson also comes amidst a stream of news about the alleged ethical failings of House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and his close friends. Against that backdrop, there's an even greater urge to purge.

In Wilkerson's case, the formerly collegial Senate has decided to become judge and jury, with no presumption of innocence. In Marzilli's case, there is compassion for a possible mental health issue. In Wilkerson's case, there is no mercy.

Perhaps she should have done what Marzilli did - check into a psychiatric hospital. Instead, she wrote to the Senate president about "the madness that has become my life."

On Beacon Hill, parsing morality often looks a lot like a double standard.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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