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When Salvatore DiMasi was indicted on federal corruption charges this week, he became the third consecutive state speaker to face criminal charges. DiMasi's predecessor, Tom Finneran, pled guilty to obstruction of justice charges. Before him, there was Charles Flaherty, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion.
DiMasi's alleged crimes are different, he's accused of accepting payments for political favors. These "pay-to-play" charges recall the kind of corruption that was rife on Beacon Hill some 30 years ago.
Longtime Boston Herald and Globe reporter Peter Lucas says DiMasi's indictment reflects poorly on everyone, not just the former speaker.
"It puts everybody under a cloud," he says. "Everybody in the building is under a cloud, because a leader has gone down."
Lucas started covering the Statehouse in 1964. The speaker was John Thompson, whose leadership style more than warranted his nickname: “The Iron Duke.”
"I'd been there a week and he was suddenly indicted and had to step down as speaker of the House," Lucas remembers. "Here we are, 40-odd years later — it's the same thing."
Not quite the same thing. The earlier scandal was bipartisan. Thompson was indicted along with his predecessor, who was a Republican, on charges of bribery and conspiracy. And Thompson was "old school." Sal DiMasi was supposed to be "new school."
"Sal DiMasi had the reputation of a being a go-along, get-along, happy-go-lucky legislator who took care of his district and thrived," Lucas says. "But in no way was he considered to be an individual who cut corners or did illicit favors or anything like that."
Genial, with always a handshake, a hug or a kiss that smoothed the way for liberal politics, DiMasi was beloved by progressives. But to consider the outlines of the indictment alleged by federal prosecutors, the scheme he concocted with fellow conspirators was definitely old-school and unsophisticated.
In order to make sure it won two contracts from Massachusetts, the prosecution claims, the software company Cognos funneled secret payoffs to DiMasi through his chosen law associate.
According to acting U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks, "Cognos carried the attorney on his books as a lobbyist, even though the attorney never performed any lobbying or legal services for Cognos." And, Loucks says, Cognos never asked the attorney to perform any services.
The scheme DiMasi allegedly concocted with his fellow conspirators is a throwback to what former prosecutor Tom Dwyer calls the "institutionalized corruption" that held this state captive in the '60s and '70s. "The thing was just totally out of control," Dwyer says.
At the Statehouse, building contracts were up for sale. That’s how the system worked, says Dwyer, who started prosecuting corruption cases in the early '70s.
It was the Watergate era, and Massachusetts was gaining a national reputation for corruption. Deeply troubled by the DiMasi case, Tom Dwyer, who as a defense attorney represented House Speaker Charles Flaherty when he was indicted, says this doesn't come close to the '70s.
"I mean you don't have a situation where the capital budget for a fiscal year cannot be released until the bribes are in order. I mean you don't have that situation, like you did in the 1970s," Dwyer says.
The breaking point came in 1977, when, in another bipartisan scandal, Sen. Joseph DiCarlo, the Democratic floor leader, and Republican Sen. Ron MacKenzie were convicted of extortion and conspiracy. The case involved a construction-management company, MBM, in regard to the construction of the new campus at UMass Boston.
With allegations that included the Senate President, the state government was paralyzed. Under extraordinary pressure, a special legislative commission was created to, as Dwyer puts it, "find the truth about the DiCarlo-MacKenzie case and recommend procedures and policies for the future to avoid these types of problems."
With powers to call witnesses and compel testimony, the Ward Commission, as it was called, with Tom Dwyer as its deputy counsel and executive director, captured the state’s attention. With nightly televised coverage, explosive newspaper headlines and hearings held under the Golden Dome, it revealed corruption as a way of life, shoddy construction as a routine, and briberies as the norm.
The star witnesses were the convicted senators themselves. Ron MacKenzie, by then a cooperating witness, and DiCarlo were — again in Dwyer's words -- "compelled" to testify, against their will, "that the whole bribe did in fact exist, that started the scandal in the first place."
The truth was shocking, the Ward Commission was blunt — declaring the state was for sale. But even while it was doing its investigation, the commission pushed legislation, supported by the public outrage, that created the first in the nation inspector general’s office, reformed campaign-contribution law, and strict laws regulating the state contracting of construction.
The days of the old school seemed to have ended. But 30 years later, we have the case of a speaker allegedly involved in an old-school scheme. Tom Dwyer says he's not sure another Ward Commission is needed. The corruption is episodic, not routine. But he says temptation is still there in the Statehouse, as it always has been.
When many public officials get into office, Dwyer says, they look around and see the lobbyists and the other people that they deal with making something like a $250,000 a year — "for no heavy lifting" — while they might only be making $45,000 or $50,000. In Dwyer's mind, the resentment that creates may be where a lot of these problems get their start.
" 'They have boats and I don't have boats,' " Dwyer says. " 'They have golf clubs and I don't have golf clubs.' And what happens is you get, I think, a lot of resentment."
This program aired on June 5, 2009.
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