Did Karyn Polito Violate Conflict-of-Interest Law?

Based on the facts laid out in this article, it sure seems like it:

The “RS” license plates, in existence for seven years, have been so popular that the Registry of Motor Vehicles is running out. When six plates were auctioned for charity in 2003, they drew huge sums: Ben Affleck paid $50,000 for the number 1, and Red Sox minority owner Phillip H. Morse bid $140,000 for Ted Williams’s retired number 9.

So how did more than two-thirds of the first 100 numbers go to state Representative Karyn Polito, a Shrewsbury Republican running for state treasurer, her friends, relatives, campaign donors, and others with ties to her? […]

Within a year after the legislation was signed by Governor Mitt Romney, Polito and her family were outfitted with some of the choicest plates. Polito received number 2. Her father and brother’s companies and other relatives were assigned numbers 20, 21, 24, 26, and 80. Number 30 was originally issued to a Polito supporter from Shrewsbury, then traded like a baseball card, first to her father’s company, Polito Development Corp., in 2004 and then to her husband, Stephan Rodolakis, later in that year, according to records.

In fact, 68 of the first 100 “RS” plates issued went to people with ties to Polito, many of whom live in Shrewsbury, according to Registry records. The Registry lets charities assign plate numbers to the first 1,500 applicants.

Jimmy Fund officials and Polito said the plates were available to anyone who applied and that the numbers were assigned on a first come, first served basis after the bill was signed into law Sept. 26, 2002.

Registry records, however, contradict that. On all 68 applications, the words “per KPolito” or some variation appears, according to the documents, obtained through a public records request.

Dozens of applicants applied before Polito’s friends, relatives, and donors, but received higher numbered plates

Polito’s response was that, since she was leading the charge to create the plate, and since the RMV requires 1,500 pre-paid applications before they’ll go to press on new charity plates, it makes sense that she’d reach out to family, friends, and supporters. That makes perfect sense, except that (and the Globe lists some clear examples) members of the general public got in line ahead of Polito’s People but were given numbers behind Polito’s People.

And that’s where the conflict of interest issue comes into play:

The state’s conflict-of-interest law prohibits officials from receiving anything of substantial value because of an official act. In addition, the law bars officials from getting anything of value for themselves or others not available to the general public.

Polito, who is running for treasurer as a watchdog who will fight what she calls the culture of corruption on Beacon Hill, did not explain why her name appeared on dozens of applications. but called the plate program “a huge success story” […]

In 2004, the State Ethics Commission cracked down on politicians receiving playoff tickets from professional sports teams, saying that if the tickets were not available to the general public, politicians should not get special treatment, even if they pay face value. Later that year, the Ethics Commission clarified the rules in a special advisory opinion.

“Whenever a public employee is offered anything from a private party,” it wrote, “he must first ask himself two questions: (1) whether the thing being offered is of ‘substantial value’ and, if so, (2) whether it is being offered for or because of any official act or act within his official responsibility that he performed or will perform.” The commission has defined substantial value as anything worth $50 or more.

Given that the low-number plates were being auctioned off for thousands and thousands of dollars, I think we can agree that a two-digit plate had a “value” of $50 or more.

We all agree, I’m sure, that the fact that the plates exist is a good thing, raising money for the Jimmy Fund, a wonderful cause. But the question here isn’t the quality of cause, which is wonderful, but rather it is an instance when a Beacon Hill insider – in this case Polito – apparently helped herself to a plum perk that she shouldn’t have.

Polito wants to be our watchdog, but here’s an instance in which it looks like she put us regular people at the back of the line behind her family, friends, and supporters. I’d like to hear her explain this before the election.

(And, before someone comments that “it’s just license plate numbers,” I’d pre-respond that it’s not “just” license plate numbers, it’s public trust. You can’t decry fraud and favoritism and conflicts of interest on Beacon Hill, but then disregard it when it’s committed by a Republican.)

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