BOSTON — “A powerful blow to the public’s trust.”
That’s how House Speaker Robert DeLeo described the conviction of the man he succeeded, former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi. A jury on Wednesday found DiMasi guilty of using his influence to win state contracts for a software firm in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.
The Conviction Shook Beacon Hill
Legislators, staff members and lobbyists gathered in small groups Wednesday, mostly outside the public eye, to grapple with the long fall of a former leader. They shook their heads and spoke in hushed tones about tragedy, temptation and human failing. Many had a hard time reconciling the man now awaiting sentencing with the colleague who spent 30 years in the House and rose to speaker.
“He was a good [representative], a good leader. He had vision,” says Frank Smizik, Democrat from Brookline, who was a member of DiMasi’s leadership team. “When he was the speaker we got health care passed, we got gay marriage, we had several great environment bills that put us in the lead in the country.”
But the national spotlight now is on DiMasi as the third consecutive House speaker forced from office amid charges that lead to a criminal conviction. This verdict is triggering a new round of calls to clean up Beacon Hill, but some lawmakers wonder if anything will change.
“I’m skeptical after being here a long time that that’s going to happen because we have had scandals in the past that haven’t led to the kind of reforms that I would like to see,” says Republican state Sen. Robert Hedlund of Weymouth.
Instead, Hedlund says he’s seen power become more concentrated among leadership.
“And when you have that kind of power vested in the speaker you’re going to see this kind of behavior,” Hedlund said.
It also, says Hedlund, encourages low ranking members to fulfill a speaker’s request without asking too many questions and stifles questions raised in the governor’s office. Both of those things happened in this case.
House Republican George Peterson of Grafton has some sympathy with DiMasi’s plight, but says the way to avoid future failures is with a stronger GOP presence on Beacon Hill.
“It’s a human failing, temptation, and it’s too bad,” Peterson said. “But until we get some balance up here, that’s one way we can slow that temptation down.”
‘Business As Usual’
Prosecutors claimed during the trail that DiMasi’s influence peddling was “business as usual” on Beacon Hill. DeLeo says the charge is unfair and untrue.
“Quite frankly, every time I read that a chill came over my body because that’s not business as usual on Beacon Hill,” DeLeo said. “The people that you’ll see here are hard-working folks that want to do that right thing by the people they represent.”
The current speaker, who knows he’s under tremendous scrutiny, pledges to lead by example. Many lawmakers and lobbyists are frustrated by the sewer, den of thieves, culture of corruption charges applied by some to everyone now associated with the State House. Gay rights lobbyist Arline Isaacson worries that perception will discourage public service in the future.
“We need the public involved, we need them engaged, we need them running for office,” Isaacson said. “And if more people were to get involved with their government, it would show people how well this building works.”
Gov. Deval Patrick said he hopes DiMasi’s verdict is the end of a sad chapter for the state. Many legislators agree, but will the next chapter have a better ending? That’s the challenge ahead.