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Mass. high court to hear arguments in DiMasi lobbying case

Former House speaker Sal DiMasi in 2018.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Massachusetts’ highest court said it will take up a case that could have precedent-setting repercussions on whether, and when, federal felons can lobby on Beacon Hill.

The Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments, likely in the fall, on a case involving former House speaker Salvatore DiMasi, who was convicted of exploiting one of the most powerful offices in the state and now is a registered state lobbyist.

At issue is whether those found 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.

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In a twist, while DiMasi is at the center of the case, he won’t be impacted by any ruling. State law puts a decade-long moratorium on lobbying by certain felons, and though DiMasi and Secretary of State William F. Galvin were locked in a years-long legal dispute over whether he could register as a lobbyist, any 10-year ban on DiMasi, 76, expired on June 15 of last year.

In an order issued last week, the Supreme Judicial Court reasoned the legal issue at the case’s core is still of “great public importance and is likely to recur” — meaning it’s likely another federal felon, like DiMasi, could again test the law.

“Accordingly,” the court wrote, “we will exercise our discretion to decide the merits.”

Galvin, who is responsible for enforcing state lobbying laws, had asked the court last year to issue a ruling before any moratorium on DiMasi ended, but the court took no action. It then asked the parties last August to argue why it should still consider ruling given the case against DiMasi was moot.

Galvin pushed for a decision anyway, saying that it could set a precedent for states with similar laws and help determine whether officials could apply the 10-year lobbying ban to individuals convicted of corruption under laws in other states. The court said DiMasi indicated he had no position on that issue.

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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 had repeatedly said he deserves a second chance after serving five years in federal prison. Galvin initially denied his 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.

DiMasi eventually appealed and later joined the lobbyist ranks in September 2020 after a Superior Court judge ruled in his favor, arguing that the ban didn’t apply to him because the law only references state convictions, not federal ones.

According to state lobbying records, he has a handful of clients, including the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, and others.

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Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.