State House Roundup: Speaker Shock
Aspirants to the House Speaker’s chair, its current occupant and believers in the rule of three, take heed.
Former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, 65, this week became the third consecutive leader of the House of Representatives to be convicted of a felony, completing the epic fall of a man once known as a gregarious, back-slapping, old school politician who could simultaneously charm a room and bend opponents to his will.
He will likely be the first of that trio, including Charles Flaherty and Thomas Finneran, to do prison time, washing away a legacy built over 30 years in public office that earned him Governing magazine’s public official of the year honor in 2006, when he helped pass a law that served as a model for national health reform.
And yet even as his former colleagues defended themselves against the temptation to color the entire Legislature with the poor decisions of one lawmaker, a former member of the House under DiMasi lent credence to the notion that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
“The Greek tragedies were famous for the rise and the fall of the mighty through their own doing, hubris. This is a man who came up from a humble background, worked hard, used all the tools that God gave him to succeed academically, to go to school, to better himself, and then to represent the people of his district,” said James Fagan, a former Taunton representative who has apparently taken up poetry in his forced retirement.
“As you reach the pinnacle, there is in fact a poison plant that you can’t resist taking. The end is the tragic fall,” Fagan said.
To hear it from him over the years, DiMasi’s rise from an upbringing in a North End cold water flat to the pinnacle of Beacon Hill power circles informed his public actions, shaping a resume of fighting for health care access, the environment and equal rights that DiMasi confoundingly lamented post-trial did not get enough attention in court - as if past good deeds should have played a role in proving his innocence.
And yet that ascent, according to prosecutors, may have fueled his unraveling. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, DiMasi’s lifestyle as Speaker - replete with fancy dining, clothes, and golf memberships – didn’t match up with his public servant salary, providing what has come to be seen as the motive – reducing debt - for risking it all.
In his defense, a shocked DiMasi offered another brain teaser as he pledged to appeal, an appeal Judge Mark Wolf even acknowledged could go to the Supreme Court: “I did not have the requisite intent to commit this crime. I told all of you when I was indicted that I never made any decision unless it was based on what I thought was in the best interests of the citizens of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, my constituents,” DiMasi said.
After listening to 19 days of testimony from 27 witnesses and less than three days of deliberations, a jury on Wednesday returned a guilty verdict on seven of nine counts, convicting DiMasi of conspiring to use his office to steer lucrative state contracts to the Canadian software firm Cognos Corp. in order to secure kickbacks for himself and codefendant Richard McDonough, a lobbyist and friend.
The jury not only disagreed with DiMasi’s defense. It also rejected the assertion by DiMasi, as told by the prosecution’s star witness Joseph Lally, “If one of us breaks, we all fall.”
DiMasi supposedly delivered that line to friend and accountant Richard Vitale when Vitale considered returning his $500,000 take from Cognos. Vitale was acquitted of all charges.
After weeks of publicly feigning a passing interest or knowledge of what was transpiring in Courtroom 10 of the Moakley Courthouse, DiMasi’s former colleagues seemed equally shocked and unprepared to respond. While some described the episode as “sad” or “disappointing,” the very idea that the DiMasi trial painted a revealing portrait of life under the dome seemed unfathomable to those that reside here.
“Quite frankly, every time I read that, a chill came over my body, because that's not business as usual on Beacon Hill,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the press.
This is the same House, after all, that passed ethics and lobbying reform long before the verdict came down, Democrats said, referencing laws spurred by the bribery case of former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.
Having endeared himself to so many of the members of the House of Representatives, many couldn’t even bring themselves to acknowledge outright that DiMasi might, in fact, be guilty. “It’s the jury who said that, not me,” insisted Rep. Frank Smizik, who added that he’s “never seen a better speaker.”
And so the public was left to decide who they trusted more: the politicians they elected, or the Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz who described DiMasi’s conviction as a victory against the “culture of corruption on Beacon Hill.”
Hours after the verdict, the boys in black and gold momentarily distracted from the conviction by clinching their first Stanley Cup in 39 years a continent away on Canadian soil, bringing joy to the legions of long-suffering, often closeted Bruins fans in a city obsessed with baseball, Tom Brady and a Celtic revival.
And, perhaps, no one was happier with the timing of both events than freshman Democrat Rep. Mark Cusack, whose own unexplained scandal involving late-night antics in the House chamber had taken on a life of its own.
Cusack, 26, refused for days to offer any sort of explanation for what he was doing for “three to four minutes,” according to the Speaker’s office, with a female Republican staffer alone in the House chamber post-budget debate while a party carried on into the wee hours of the morning in the Speaker’s office.
And by the time he finally returned to the State House for a formal session and class portrait on Wednesday, few had the time or inclination to press him for answers.
But after fueling the story with acknowledgment of an internal review, DeLeo issued a detail-poor report on the findings of House counsel exonerating Cusack of inappropriate behavior, and instructing his staff that his private door to the Chamber should be off-limits after hours.
Unfortunately, the curious may never find out what transpired that night in the House chamber, or in the Speaker’s office where the beer was flowing after the bars had closed, even though DeLeo has long retired home to Winthrop.
The week on Beacon Hill, however, was not all about extinguishing fires. Some actual business got done.
As a conference committee continued working to finalize details of the state’s fiscal 2012 budget, President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for the western Massachusetts communities ravaged by tornadoes earlier this month, and the House and Senate passed a $54 million budget bill, including $15 million in tornado relief funding.
The state’s unemployment rate also dipped to 7.6 percent, despite a loss of 4,000 jobs in May.
LESSON OF THE WEEK: From Rep. Michael Moran: "It's a reminder to all of us that the actions we take in this building as elected officials, we have to answer for.”
This program aired on June 17, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.