Oh those strict constructionists on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Their recent decision in a case involving former House speaker and convicted felon Sal DiMasi has the effect of rendering federal public-corruption convictions a ho-hum matter when it comes to lobbying in Massachusetts.
Convicted on seven such charges in 2011, DiMasi was sentenced to eight years in prison but paroled after five for medical reasons under the federal government’s compassionate release program, which is intended for prisoners who are elderly and have served much of their sentence or who have terminal health conditions.
This newspaper supported compassionate-release consideration for DiMasi, who reportedly suffered from throat and prostate cancer.
But however difficult DiMasi’s medical problems may have been to cope with in prison, they haven’t kept him from returning to the scene of his crimes — and as a lobbyist, no less. Rather than being spurned on Beacon Hill, he has generally been accorded a jail-fellow-well-met reception, Beacon Hill chumminess apparently trumping disgust over a powerful legislative leader pocketing thousands of dollars in kickback in exchange for rigging a state contract for a software company. When House members were sworn in for new terms on Wednesday, DiMasi was there in the chamber.
But DiMasi’s relatively new role as a lobbyist has been met with an appropriate frown from Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office oversees the laws, rules, and regulations that apply to lobbyists. Galvin had denied DiMasi the right to lobby based on a state ethics statute, passed in the aftermath of DiMasi’s 2009 indictment, that banned those with public corruption convictions from lobbying for a period of 10 years.
DiMasi declined to wait out that period. Instead, he tried to register as a lobbyist in 2019.
As pertains strictly to DiMasi, the state’s decade-long ban has ceased to matter, since the 10-year penalty period expired in 2021. (In 2022, DiMasi reported almost $60,000 in lobbying income from five clients: the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, two health care clients, and organizations that serve veterans and the homeless.)
Still, the SJC nevertheless ruled on the legal dispute in the case — and sided with the felonious former speaker. Why? Because though the state statute listed state corruption laws as triggering the automatic ban, it didn’t mention federal ones.
Galvin intends to file legislation to expand the state law so it would cover relevant federal public-corruption convictions of the sort that got DiMasi and his close pal, former lobbyist Richard McDonough, sent to federal prison. Interestingly, a federal judge overseeing McDonough’s parole concluded he had lied about having a substance abuse problem, probably so he could participate in a recovery program that reduced his sentence by a year.
This really should be a no-brainer for the Legislature. Serious corruption is serious corruption, regardless of whether prosecuted at the state or federal level. That’s all the more true for this reason: It’s usually federal prosecutors who develop and pursue these kinds of corruption cases, since they have stronger anti-corruption tools. Why? One reason is that the Massachusetts House has resisted strengthening the investigative tools that state prosecutors have at their disposal.
Such a revised law should also extend the period during which someone who has been convicted on felony corruption charges is automatically banned from lobbying. At a minimum, 20 years seems like a more appropriate period. Otherwise, a sticky-fingered felon like DiMasi can serve the typical federal sentence and still reappear on Beacon Hill to take advantage of his (or her) longtime relationships.
Such a lengthened exclusion would not apply to DiMasi himself. But it would take precedence going forward.
In an era of one-party rule on Beacon Hill, this matter will be a test for Massachusetts Democrats, given that fixing the law would be seen as a slap at the former speaker. But it is important both symbolically and substantively. Declining to fix the law would signal the Legislature is not serious about signaling a no-tolerance policy for public corruption. Governor Maura Healey and Attorney General-elect Andrea Campbell should also lend their vocal support to Galvin’s effort.
Those who take their oaths of office more seriously than DiMasi did his should move expeditiously to ensure that when it comes to former felons becoming lobbyists, DiMasi’s history doesn’t repeat itself — at least not for a 20-year exclusionary period.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.