In the summer of 2009, former House speaker Salvatore DiMasi’s federal corruption charges hung like a haze over the State House, driving demand for a package of ethics and lobbying reforms.
More than a decade later, Massachusetts’ highest court will now decide whether that law’s ban on felons lobbying Beacon Hill for a decade even applies to him, despite his conviction for exploiting one of the most powerful offices in the state.
The Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule on whether DiMasi and others guilty of federal corruption charges should be barred from lobbying state lawmakers, the governor, and other Massachusetts officials for 10 years after their conviction, even if their crimes aren’t directly cited in the state law.
The question could be precedent-setting, and has been at the center of a two-plus-year legal battle between Secretary of State William F. Galvin and DiMasi, who joined the lobbyist ranks in September after a Superior Court judge ruled last summer that the ban didn’t apply to him because the law only references state convictions, not federal ones.
And DiMasi has found work. He has slowly built a small client list, last month landing a contract with the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. But the legal case has raised a broader question: To what kind of criminal should the law even apply?
“The idea that you can say, as DiMasi does, that ‘I was convicted of federal corruption charges, not state corruption charges, so you can’t bar me,’ it’s ridiculous,” Galvin said. “Otherwise, the statute would have no meaning.”
“It really isn’t about him; he’s an unusual example. But it has this precedent for other types of prohibitions,” Galvin said. “For honest government, it’s a very important case.”
Galvin initially denied DiMasi’s application to lobby in March 2019 — itself an unprecedented move — arguing that though the federal fraud and extortion statutes on which the former North End Democrat was convicted in June 2011 aren’t written into the state lobbying statute, the language is ambiguous and that DiMasi’s crimes still qualify as “conduct in violation” of state law. That, Galvin argued, should subject DiMasi to automatic decade-long prohibition.
Galvin later appealed the lower court’s July ruling in DiMasi’s favor, and the SJC said in February it would take the case.
Regardless of how the high court rules, it’s likely to have little impact on DiMasi’s own ability to peddle influence at the State House. Any moratorium on him would expire after the 10-year anniversary of his conviction on June 15.
But Galvin, in a motion filed last week, is still asking the SJC to issue a ruling by then, saying it “raises a matter of significant public importance.” The Brighton Democrat has said a ruling could set a precedent for states with similar laws, and it could help determine whether officials could apply the 10-year lobbying ban to individuals convicted of corruption under laws in other states.
“It would set a precedent on the breadth of Secretary Galvin’s authority,” said George Brown, a Boston College law professor and former chairman of the state Ethics Commission. “The question comes down to: Is it Galvin’s job to enforce the state anticorruption laws or is it more narrow?”
Brown said he believes DiMasi’s more narrow interpretation may be the correct one. “It’s not up to Galvin to retry the matter,” he said.
A federal jury in 2011 found DiMasi guilty of taking $65,000 in kickbacks in exchange for using the power of his office to help Cognos, a software company, win $17.5 million in state contracts. He was sentenced to eight years, but within months was diagnosed with cancer and received an early release shortly before Thanksgiving in 2016. As of the end of 2018, he was in remission for throat and prostate cancer.
DiMasi, 75, has repeatedly said he deserves a second chance after serving five years in federal prison. Meredith Fierro, his attorney, declined to comment beyond her client’s legal filings, where he argued that if the Legislature he once helped lead intended for federal crimes to disqualify him or others from lobbying, lawmakers would have written it that way.
Legislators who worked with DiMasi for years passed a final version of the ethics law weeks after he was indicted in June 2009 and less than six months after he had stepped down as speaker.
“The Legislature could have included language applying automatic disqualification to federal convictions or convictions of like offenses but did not . . . do so, indicating that no such result was intended,” DiMasi wrote in a brief filed with the SJC.
Superior Court Judge Robert B. Gordon agreed, writing in July that the “very purpose of this statute” was to eliminate Galvin’s discretion to disqualify would-be lobbyists, and replace it with language that would automatically bar applicants convicted of “specifically enumerated offenses.”
Cleared to register, the former speaker became an official state lobbyist last fall. He initially reported representing one client for whom he previously consulted: the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, which reported paying him less than $4,000 in lobbying fees in 2020. In March, he added a second: the statewide organization representing criminal defense attorneys.
“We’re aware of his history, we’re aware of the fact that he served time on that case — and we’re aware that he’s paid whatever debt that society claimed he owed. And we move on,” said Victoria Kelleher, the association’s president.
DiMasi, she said, was an “obvious choice” as the group pushes lawmakers to approve raises for bar advocates, citing DiMasi’s own work as an attorney and prosecutor in the 1970s. “We have clients who get out of prison and can’t get jobs because they have a criminal history,” she said. “Sal’s history was not a consideration for us.”
Depending on how the SJC rules, it could put pressure on the Legislature to change the statute. Senator Rebecca L. Rausch, a Needham Democrat, already filed a bill this year that would specify that those convicted in “any other state or federal felony crime of political corruption” would be barred from lobbying for a decade.
“Why is there a difference between a state corruption charge and a federal corruption charge?” Rausch said. “While it might be moot for DiMasi’s purposes, the question is not moot.”
Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.