Former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi was indicted last week on federal corruption charges. House Democrats, including me, voted overwhelmingly to re-elect DiMasi as speaker in January and he served briefly before resigning later that month.
What were we thinking? It’s a fair question. At the time, most of us were thinking about the situation constantly, and we already knew a lot. Sal’s office had been involved to some degree in steering a contract toward Cognos and Cognos had made payments to various lobbyists and others, including Sal’s law office mate. The payments to the law office mate were pretty close to home and raised a clear appearance of impropriety. There was also the ambiguous third mortgage from his accountant. We also knew that Sal was resisting the disclosure of certain internal documents related to the contract award, claiming legislative privilege. Some of us had read the Supreme Court cases and felt that the claim of privilege was not a valid claim under the law.
What was not publicly documented or even actually alleged by anyone, until the federal indictment was unsealed, was that Sal was actually receiving payments himself. In the months running up to the speaker vote in January, Sal faced hard and direct questions from many about these issues. He repeatedly and specifically denied having benefited personally from the Cognos contract award. He did so graciously and with a sympathetic understanding of the question. He organized a series of small group meetings with legislators in which he elaborated his denials of wrongdoing and also explained his motives — protection of the institution — in asserting a claim of privilege.
He had his enemies and critics among the members, but he was well-liked by most of us. He had a wiseguy sense of humor, but was at the same time gracious and direct. He humored the preferences of members on many issues of policy and genuinely enjoyed helping people. When he became speaker, he advanced the careers of a great many thoughtful and progressive people who had suffered under prior speaker Finneran. Those people, all of whom I admire, remained profoundly grateful and unfailingly loyal to Sal personally.
Most of us also felt that Sal was an effective speaker. I happened to agree with him on the major issues he led on during his tenure — funding education, assuring universal health insurance, marriage equality, controlling climate change, saying no to casinos. He was also more willing than many to take on government reform issues, like municipal employee health insurance reform. But more than agreeing with him, many of us felt he did an effective job herding cats — he set broad directions and priorities and stuck with them, bringing enough of us along to get big things done.
As the vote got closer, many of us struggled — on some days consumed with outrage at the appearances of impropriety and on other days remembering how we felt about Sal in other respects. In the end, there was no practical alternative to Sal’s speakership. Two of his lieutenants had been vying behind the scenes to succeed him. But they had both long ago pledged that, while they were gathering votes quietly, they were not plotting an insurrection. Further, most of us had already committed to one or the other of these two candidates, so there was no room for a third candidate.
Federal indictments are based on sworn grand jury testimony. Although a court will, perhaps after trial, decide whether to impose criminal penalties on Sal, we probably have to accept the sworn content of the indictment as evidence in our non-judicial thinking about what happened. Based on the indictment, he didn’t just make a mistake, but rather engaged in a systematic pattern of deceit around this contract. Many of us do feel personally betrayed — certainly, the members of the House would have demanded his resignation immediately had the now charged felonies been known.
Moving on, I take great comfort in the fact that our present leadership team is setting a very different tone. Speaker DeLeo and his top lieutenants are working hard to rebuild faith in the institution. Over the next few weeks, a number of important reforms will work their way to the end of the legislative pipeline. But at the end of the day, real ethics reform is not primarily about new laws. Sal and the others who have recently done wrong are facing charges — our laws are already strong. The challenge is to avoid the arrogance that leads people to disregard the law. In that respect also I take comfort: I sense a humility in our current speaker that contrasts sharply with the bravado I sometimes saw in Sal.
Sigh. Okay I get it Will but surely you can see that no matter how effective or how nice a guy he was even before you knew he personally benefited the evidence was in that impropriety had occurred? Whether there was an alternative or not didn’t a principle apply? If you all had said to him that you could not support him perhaps a successor would have been forthcoming. In terms of reform I don’t think things are going to change until how the house is organized is changed. Too much power is concentrated in the speaker. The current speaker’s personality is irrelevant – it is not enduring. What is relevant is that you should never put a stumbling block before the blind. You need to change the rules including how committee assignments and chairmanships are handed out so that the speaker is not all powerful and therefore likely to be corrupted by that power over time. Nothing would be sadder than to read that a person who now seems to you to have a refreshing humility has been indicted for a similar abuse of power a few years from now. Be the change please.
The laws against bribery only punish someone if there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt–meaning some guilty people are not punished because they’ve hidden the evidence well. This is a good principle for courts.
But ethics commissions should be able to make statements using a lower standard of proof–and this should create an additional set of incentives to be ethical–where it is a little easier to shame a leader who might beat the rap in court, then show up in public proclaiming “I was acquitted and therefore innocent!” which is not necessarily true.
“Many of us do feel personally betrayed — no one would have voted for him had all the facts been known.” Might this imply Ethics Commissions should have greater access to documents, so that in the future the Reps have more information before they vote? Might this imply the House should write laws/rules clarifying what is privileged and what isn’t?
I think the primary idea is a complex and difficult one — that former Speaker DiMasi was a mixture of virtue and vice. At first he was a wonderful relief from the prior tyranny of Tommy Finneran. He was courageously opposed to gambling casinos and almost single-handedly stopped the casino effort. He tried to take a novel look at tidelands and did not go into the tank for the developers.
Then we hear of the influence peddling and problems first with his “friends.” With this indictment, we now find out the money trail — a law firm assistant who indirectly acted as a bag man. This lawyer served as a “consultant” who did no work but collected a regular fee, from which he regularly gave 80 percent to DiMasi.
I do not know whether this arrangement represented bribery or extortion, but it is clearly wrong and unethical by anyone’s standards.
The problem is that now all Legislators are called into disrepute and looked up with suspicion by the public. It becomes more difficult to refer to state house occupamts as “honorable.” Earlier evidence showed that senators are involved in the process as well and two Senators have been forced to resign — one for taking money and the other for sexual aberrations. Governor’s operatives have, at a minimum, gone along.
One positive consequence is that the Legislature will be less likely to pass unwise “reforms” which are not reforms at all, and probably will not be able to pass a casino bill — because of the unsavory characters likely to benefit from legalized casino gambling.
It is indeed sad that we have to go through this yet again. I hear people from time to time saying they want a ‘clean sweep’ of everyone in Washington (or on Beacon Hill) because “they’re all crooks.” They reason that different people will fix the problems. I disagree. I say with this many people brought up on criminal activity, there has to be a systemic problem, not a personality problem. That is, the troubles will likely persist no matter who is holding office.
So, what about the current system drives people toward the abuse of power? Is there anything we can change to reduce that? Perhaps, the old phrase that “… and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (Lord Acton, 1887) is appropriate. Limiting the power of the speaker might be one avenue.
This is all very sad Will and no matter how much spin you or other reps put on this pretty much all credibility of what you and others on the hill are doing has been lost. As Annie says be the change please and I’ll further that by saying until you and others on the hill start to make drastic changes my cynicism will not wane.
Public financing and corporate donations into blind trusts at Federal, state, and local levels are the only way to prevent overt bribery and subtle influence from continuing to give us the best public officials that money can buy. To make democracy work, broadcast media should be required to provide some minimum amount of free time to all candidates who have been selected primary elections and inexpensive time to all candidates running in primary elections.
It’s ridiculous and “head in the sand” posturing to expect the public to respect the claims of independence by officials who must vote on issues that their contributors are interested in. This puts the officials in an untenable position. They are forced to depend for financial support by the very businesses they are elected to tame for the overall public good.
Hi Will, thanks for the accounting of the Sal saga. From your point of view, I do understand it and think many of the same things myself. Sal was a respected legislator. He stood for good things. He didn’t have to steal money to be the big guy.
I am wondering and will ask you this when we do our TV show, how you can stay honest on Beacon Hill? The culture seems beyond redemption. How do you avoid hitching your wagon to somebody who will run it into the mud?
Will, it’s not adequate to say that our laws are strong already. I note that your evidence is these recent federal indictments. Don’t you realize that they could not have been indicted under state law because the evidence could not have been gathered?
Sal was indicted by the feds, who are able to use one-party-consent taping. That means that if any party to a conversation knows the conversation is taped, the recording is legal. Massachusetts, on the other hand, allows only all-party consent recording. It is not legal to tape any conversation (with only one exception, and it’s not suspected political corruption,) even with a warrant, unless everyone participating in the conversation realizes the taping is going on. Past attorneys general have asked for this power, with a warrant, but have always been turned down. Adding that was a recommendation of the commission that studied ethics laws recently. It would be nice to see a serious push to get it passed.
The state Ethics and anti-corruption laws that were passed 30 years ago after the Ward Commission investigated the McKee-Berger-Mansueto case have been steadily eroded. That erosion must be reversed.
More generally, people are fed up with all the special privileges held by those in what might elsewhere be low-level jobs. In Massachusetts, toll takers, MBTA employees, etc., are very well paid because they have political sponsors. That’s why they get to retire after 23 years; that’s why they get holidays no one else has ever heard of; that’s why repeated abuse of accidental disability pensions is not stopped; . . . and on and on. It is hard to persuade voters that everything has been cut to the bone when the tickets on the MassPike are handed to you by an employee. Everywhere else in the world, including almost every parking garage, that job is done by a machine. Why would the Pike, of all agencies, continue using human beings? Well, because those employees all have political sponsors.
It will take a serious push to make this change. I have considerable doubts that the Legislature is up to it, but they need to manage somehow.
Regarding Sal’s indictment, the problem goes beyond Sal. With the notable exception of the late George Keverian, ALL of the House Speakers from Tommy McGee onward (and doubtless many prior to him) have been corrupt.
At this point, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the only difference between the current Speaker of the House and a criminal is that the former hasn’t been indicted yet.
The past history of corrupt Speakers makes this more than a coincidence of successive personal failings. There is something about the job (indeed there are several things about it) which bring on the corruption. First and foremost is the immense power the Speaker has over the members – office space and supplies, committee assignments and chairmanships, just to name a few. Second is the undue influence the Speaker has over the legislative process, deciding whether proposed legislation is heard sooner, later or not at all. Third is the extraordinary financial investment that outside interests make in the Speaker, precisely due to the Speaker’s excessive power. Indeed, it would be surprising if a Speaker was *not* corrupt!
The House is a self-governing body. Only you and your peers in the House can change the rules which create this situation; we taxpayers and voters cannot. Unfortunately, the behavior of many of your peers is not much better – a diminished version of the treatment the Speaker receives from outside interests, reflecting members’ more limited influence. The recent ethics legislation (H3853), your peers’ attempt to deal with political corruption, is a case in point.
The legislation defines both lobbying the members executive and legislative branches broadly: anyone whose “regular and usual business” involves lobbying members of either branch, regardless of how much money they receive. However, the bill already has its lobbyists loophole written in: individuals whose lobbying is “incidental” to their daily business are exempt. “Incidental” means that during any one campaign finance reporting quarter, either the lobbyist engaged in less than 10 hours of lobbying OR the lobbyist was paid less than $2,500.
Thus, either keep the lobbying hours down, defer payments till a later period, spread the payments out over several periods, distribute the lobbying among multiple individuals, or have the client pay the firm instead of the lobbyist, and the lobbyist isn’t lobbying.
The bottom line is that we need you and your peers in the House to pass legislation without loopholes. As a group, you need to admit that like most groups, you can’t police yourselves and decide outside group will monitor you. Then you can move on to the business of fixing Massachusetts’ ailing budget.
Thanks to all of those whose comments appear below for extending the critical conversation about ethics and integrity in government. In general terms, I agree with the thrust of the comments: We should act to reduce the chances of corruption in the future. Next week we will be acting on a major ethics reform package and I will post again to talk about that package and what we can expect from it.
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