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.