Massachusetts earns ‘D’ for judicial financial disclosure

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The Center for Public Integrity evaluated the disclosure rules for judges in the highest state courts nationwide. The level of disclosure in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was poor, with 43 receiving failing grades, making it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench. Despite the lack of information in the public records, the Center’s investigation found nearly three dozen conflicts, questionable gifts and entanglements among top judges around the country. Here’s what the Center found in Massachusetts:

Strengths:

Massachusetts received a D, earning 4th place among the states for its financial disclosure rules. The state is one of 11 that require judges to file more than one public personal financial disclosure report. The Center graded both the Massachusetts Ethics Commission form and a form filed with the court system to come up with the total score. The state ethics commission seeks information about assets held in trusts, such as family, realty or charitable trusts, in addition to other investments. And it seeks information about real estate sales and purchases within the state.

Weaknesses:

The state lost points for seeking minimal information about the investments that judges or their families held, asking only for the name of any securities valued at $1,000 or more but not how much was owned or whether it was bought or sold during the reporting period.

Highlights:

The Center found two cases in which justices presided over cases in which they had a financial stake, though with different end results. Chief Justice Roderick Ireland reported that his wife owned Wells Fargo stock in 2011, yet he participated in U.S. Bank National Association v. Antonio Ibanez, a case involving Wells Fargo, and did not find in the bank’s favor.

However, Justice Robert Cordy reported owning Bank of America stock in 2010, yet took part in a decision on T.W. Nickerson, Inc. v. Fleet National Bank. Fleet Bank had been purchased by Bank of America in 2004, but the case showed Fleet as the lead defendant’s name because the case began before the merger. The court affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of the bank and the other defendants. Cordy also reported having a home equity line of credit through Citizens Bank in his 2012 filing, yet was part of a 2012 decision favoring the bank in Go-Best Assets Limited v. Citizens Bank of Massachusetts. The high court ruled that the bank was not liable in a case in which an attorney tried to defraud Go-Best Assets Limited, affirming lower courts’ dismissals of the claims.

“Recusal is required only when a judge has a more than de minimis economic interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of a proceeding,” court spokeswoman Jennifer Donahue said on behalf of the justices. “The factors a judge considers in determining whether an interest is de minimis include the dollar value of the interest and whether the interest comprises a substantial portion of the judge's total economic holdings.”

In the case of Cordy, she said, he owned several hundred shares of Bank of America stock, which she said did not require his recusal. It is not clear how much that would be worth, but for a sense of scale 300 shares of the company would have been valued at $5,523 on the day of the decision. His Citizens Bank housing loans were made at market rate and he has had them since 1986, she said, which does not create a conflict under the commonwealth’s judicial rules.