BOSTON — Once considered a routine part of the job, House lawmakers were admonished during a closed caucus this month to use caution when recommending colleagues or constituents for public sector jobs, told that verbal recommendations could be “perilous” and advised that written referrals for constituents must be doled out evenly.
The cautionary advice came after the State Ethics Commission issued its first-ever advisory opinion last month on the topic of job recommendations, a nine-page memo that has prompted some confusion among the ranks of the Legislature and made lawmakers increasingly skittish about a practice that has been defended in recent years as a routine function of an elected official and criticized as a potentially unethical act.
House counsel Jim Kennedy briefed House Democrats and Republicans in a private, joint caucus about two weeks ago on the Ethics Commission advisory, which was issued on Jan. 18, according to lawmakers who attended.
“The impression from reading the advisory, along with his interpretation, is your best bet would be not to do them until there is clarification because there’s a perception that you could be in violation of the ethics laws. It was pretty complicated, but it makes you nervous,” said one House lawmaker, requesting anonymity to speak freely about the private meeting.
“For me, I’m putting it on hold until I feel comfortable. Basically, you’re putting yourself at risk by doing it,” the House member continued.
The House and Senate in 2011 passed a new law governing job recommendations, a reaction to the scandal within the Probation Department in which top probation officials were accused of rigging the hiring process to favor candidates recommended by legislators in an attempt to curry favor.
The new law bars state agencies from considering written recommendations on behalf of job candidates until the final stages of the hiring process, but the final version of the bill excluded a House-passed proposal to ban verbal recommendations.
“There are still a lot of questions, and nobody wants to do something that’s going to get them in trouble,” said another House lawmaker, speaking about the advice from the Speaker’s office.
A spokeswoman for the Ethics Commission said the advisory was issued – almost two years after the law was last updated – in response to questions posed by lawmakers seeking advice from the commission about how the state’s conflict of interest laws apply to job recommendations.
Kennedy was not available to discuss his memo and interpretation of the ethics bulletin, but DeLeo aides acknowledged the legal team was working to help members adhere to the law. “The Office of the House Counsel has been engaged in educating members about the advisory,” said DeLeo spokesman Seth Gitell, in a statement.
In his memo, Kennedy told House members that the ethics advisory was “vague and ambiguous at times, which has created some pitfalls of which I want to make you aware.” Kennedy said House counsel’s office would be seeking clarification to help members avoid violating the law.
“For now, this much is clear: first, oral employment recommendations are perilous; and second, if you submit a written letter of recommendation on someone’s behalf, you need to be mindful of the follow-up communications you have with that person’s prospective employer. At a minimum, I recommend limiting the number of follow-up phone calls you make to check on the candidate’s status . . . ,” Kennedy wrote in a memo given to lawmakers at the caucus.
Kennedy said the Ethics Commission, if a complaint is filed, will be paying particular attention to whether a lawmaker tried to exert pressure on the hiring agency to offer a job to the recommended applicant. “Oral employment recommendations, while permissible under the law, are strongly discouraged by the advisory,” Kennedy wrote.
The Ethics Commission advisory states that “a public official’s denial that he intended oral remarks as threats will not carry the day if a reasonable person would find his remarks threatening.”