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Former House Speaker Sal DiMasi wins fight to become a registered lobbyist

Former House speaker Sal DiMasi.
Former House speaker Sal DiMasi.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A superior court judge Thursday ruled that former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi can register as a lobbyist on Beacon Hill despite his federal conviction for mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion.

Judge Robert B. Gordon wrote that the state law barring some applicants from become registered lobbyists applies only to people convicted of state -- not federal -- crimes.

DiMasi had appealed a ruling by Secretary of State William Galvin, who in March 2019 rejected DiMasi’s application days after the 74-year-old registered to lobby both the Legislature and executive branch.

“The very purpose of this statute was to eliminate the Secretary’s discretion to disqualify would-be lobbyists and replace such discretion with an automatic disqualification from lobbying if the applicant stood convicted of one off the specifically enumerated offenses,” wrote Gordon, sitting in Suffolk Superior Court.

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The former North End Democrat’s attempt at entering the lucrative industry came after he completed his federally supervised release following his 2011 conviction on public corruption charges. He was sentenced to eight years, but within months was diagnosed with cancer.

He earned an early release shortly before Thanksgiving in 2016, and as of the end of 2018, he was in remission for throat and prostate cancer.

Though state lobbying laws don’t specifically cite DiMasi’s federal crimes as disqualifying convictions, Galvin had argued that DiMasi’s record reflected “conduct in violation” of state lobbying and ethics laws, which should automatically bar him from lobbying for 10 years after his conviction, or until June 2021.

But Gordon agreed with DiMasi that the prohibition applies only to specified state crimes, arguing that if the legislature wanted federal crimes to be considered, it would have written the law that way.

“The Court finds that the Secretary’s broad interpretation and application (of the law) to disqualify DiMasi from lobbyist licensing and registration constituted an error of law. It may not stand,” the judge wrote in his 21-page decision.

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DiMasi’s lawyer, Meredith Fierro, said the ruling “adopts our common-sense construction of the Lobbying Law.

“As we have said from the beginning, the Secretary did not have authority to disqualify Mr. DiMasi from registering as a lobbyist. Mr. DiMasi looks forward to using his knowledge and experience to advocate for important causes such as healthcare for the homeless and prison reform,” Fierro said.

But Galvin, who plans to appeal, said the decision sets a bad precedent, potentially allowing dangerous criminals to work in a variety of state jobs. A firefighter convicted of arson in federal court, for example, could work as a firefighter in the state because he or she was not convicted of a state crime, he said.

“If you buy the theory that this judge espouses, if you were convicted in federal court of swindling your clients, I couldn’t stop you from registering as a broker,” said Galvin, whose office also regulates stockbrokers and other financial professionals.

He said the timing of the decision, on the Thursday before a holiday weekend “makes it even more odious.”

DiMasi was the first candidate to be refused a lobbyist registration based on federal convictions since the state rewrote the ethics and lobbyists laws a decade ago. Previously, Galvin’s office never had an applicant with federal convictions that were similar to the disqualifying violations in state law, said Debra O’Malley, a Galvin spokeswoman.

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DiMasi’s friend Richard McDonough, a lobbyist and codefendant who was sentenced to seven years in prison could also benefit from the ruling.

McDonough, also released from prison early, attended a public hearing on sports betting at the State House on May 28 of last year. He hadn’t tried to re-register as a lobbyist since his release from prison, but may now, in light of Thursday’s court ruling.

In his appeal, DiMasi argued that other federally convicted officials have registered as lobbyists.

Former speaker Charles F. Flaherty has lobbied for years after pleading guilty to tax evasion charges in 1996, and his successor, Thomas M. Finneran, has been a lobbyist for more than a decade, after he pleaded guilty in 2007 to one count of obstruction of justice.

Both, however, were convicted — and later registered as lobbyists — before the Legislature revamped the law in 2009. The law gave Galvin more power to regulate lobbyists.

Then-Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation strengthening the lobbying and conflict of interest laws that July, including creating the 10-year prohibition. The law came in response to the DiMasi corruption probe, which the Globe reported on beginning in 2008.

“Lobbying is a constitutional right,” DiMasi wrote to Galvin’s office after his application was first denied. “Now that I have paid the severe price for my convictions, I want to do what I know best: advocating for the things I believe in.”

DiMasi registered to lobby at Boston City Hall in June 2019, after Galvin rejected his application to become a statehouse lobbyist.

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Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.