BOSTON — The corruption conviction and eight-year prison sentence of former state House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi was upheld Wednesday by a federal appeals court, which rejected arguments that the trial judge gave improper instructions to a jury.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld the conviction and seven-year sentence of DiMasi’s co-defendant, former Statehouse lobbyist Richard McDonough.
DiMasi, a Democrat, was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy, extortion and theft of honest services by fraud, a bribery charge. He was accused of using his political clout to steer lucrative state contracts to Cognos, a Canadian software firm with U.S. headquarters in Burlington, in exchange for payments of $65,000.
DiMasi, who resigned in 2009, was the third consecutive Massachusetts speaker to leave office under a cloud of suspicion.
McDonough, a close friend of DiMasi, was convicted of conspiracy and fraud. A third defendant, businessman and DiMasi associate Richard Vitale, was acquitted.
Software salesman Joseph Lally pleaded guilty before the trial and testified against the other defendants, later receiving an 18-month prison sentence.
The three-judge appeals court, in its ruling, acknowledged that the issues presented at the trial and in the appeal were “myriad and complex” but said the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions.
“We conclude that a rational jury could easily find beyond a reasonable doubt that DiMasi and McDonough took part in a scheme that saw DiMasi exchange his official acts for money,” Judge Jeffrey Howard wrote in the decision.
DiMasi’s lawyers argued that the payments were legal referral fees, not bribes. The defense also said the government failed to prove that the payments that were funneled through DiMasi’s outside legal firm were made in expectation of actions by the speaker.
In arguments before the appeals court in February, DiMasi’s lawyer Thomas Kiley said the trial judge failed to properly instruct the jury on several aspects of the case, including the difference between what constitutes illegal bribes and legal gratuities.
But the court said it found no errors in the trial judge’s instructions.
DiMasi and McDonough also challenged the lengths of their prison sentences, arguing they were too harsh compared with previous sentences given in political corruption cases. DiMasi additionally claimed that he was, in effect, punished for making public statements declaring his innocence after the verdict and that the trial judge in his sentencing improperly considered the fact that DiMasi was the third former speaker in a row to be convicted of a federal crime.
But the appeals court wasn’t persuaded.
“We see no abuse of discretion in either the district court’s approach or its sentence,” Howard wrote.
Kiley had no immediate comment on Wednesday’s decision. A message was left with McDonough’s attorney, Martin Weinberg.
DiMasi has battled tongue cancer while in prison. His wife, Debbie DiMasi, has said that federal prison officials took too long to diagnose his condition. He is housed at a medical facility attached to a federal prison in Butner, N.C.
Associated Press writer Sylvia Wingfield contributed to this report.