In a rare request, prosecutors asked a federal judge Thursday to release ailing former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi from prison before he completes his full eight-year sentence for political corruption.
Prosecutors said they were filing the request under the Department of Justice’s compassionate release program. DiMasi, now 71, recently battled cancer and remains severely ill at the federal medical prison in Butner, N.C., his family said. His current scheduled release is November 2018.
The decision of whether to release DiMasi will be made by US District Judge Mark L. Wolf, who presided over DiMasi’s public corruption trial in 2011. The judge did not immediately respond to the request and it is not known when he will consider the matter.
The request, filed Thursday in federal court on behalf of the US Bureau of Prisons, notes that DiMasi has served more than half his sentence and “is experiencing deteriorating physical health that substantially diminishes his ability to function in a correctional facility.”
“In this case, DiMasi’s age, length of time served, and medical condition constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons warranting the requested [sentence] reduction,” First Assistant US Attorney William Weinreb wrote in the motion.
According to prosecutors and DiMasi’s family, the former speaker has cancer of the tongue and prostate, along with several other related ailments. He developed tongue cancer while in prison and received radiation and chemotherapy that constricted his esophagus, necessitating the use of a feeding tube for a year.
“He continues to suffer from choking episodes and requires regular esophageal dilations, among other treatments,” Weinreb said in the court motion.
The recommendation came after heavy lobbying and a petition from DiMasi’s family and lawyers who worked on his behalf, including Thomas Kiley, Charles Rankin, John Reinstein, and former federal judge Nancy Gertner, who argued that DiMasi belongs closer to his family rather than in a federal prison.
“We are immeasurably grateful for the government’s decision to recommend Sal’s release,” DiMasi’s wife, Deborah DiMasi, said in a statement.
DiMasi was convicted in 2011 after a jury found that he and several cohorts carried out a scheme that funneled $65,000 in kickbacks to DiMasi in exchange for directing $17.5 million in state contracts to a Burlington software company, Cognos. An appeals court later upheld the conviction.
The Bureau of Prisons has established guidelines for recommending the release of inmates suffering from severe and terminal illnesses, though the agency rarely makes such requests. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report found that the agency asks the courts to release sick prisoners only about three dozen times each year, out of a total federal prison population of more than 218,000.
In 2013, the Bureau of Prisons expanded its compassionate release guidelines to include elderly people who are severely ill and have served at least half their sentence. That expansion made many more inmates eligible for the program, including DiMasi.
One of the more well-known prisoners to be set free under the compassionate release program is former New England Mafia underboss Gennaro “Jerry” Angiulo, who was released three years early from a 45-year prison sentence. He died two years later.
After DiMasi was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2012, his family blamed the Bureau of Prisons for failing to promptly provide medical care, saying that a lump on his neck had gone unchecked for months as he was moved from one prison to another.
“He’s at their mercy,” Deborah DiMasi told the Globe in November 2015.
The family said that DiMasi’s prostate cancer has been treated, but that “there are questions about the impact of that treatment on his digestive system that compound his swallowing problems.”
The rapid deterioration of DiMasi’s health was a shock to the family and friends of the Democrat from Boston’s North End, once one of the most powerful figures in the state who was celebrated for his legislative initiatives. He fought gambling in the state, helped defeat a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have outlawed same-sex marriage, and helped Governor Mitt Romney pass health care legislation in 2006 that became a model for the nation.
Massachusetts politicians in both parties praised the move Thursday.
Governor Charlie Baker “respects the federal government’s decision and has long believed that it makes sense for Sal DiMasi to be closer to his family given his health concerns,” Baker communications director Lizzy Guyton said in an e-mail.
An aide to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who occasionally clashed with DiMasi when he was in the House, said he “supports their decision to move forward with compassionate release.”
In a statement, DiMasi’s successor as House speaker, Robert DeLeo, said he was “overjoyed” by the news.
“I am grateful to Speaker DiMasi’s attorneys and to the US attorney for her compassionate gesture,” DeLeo said. “I look forward to the speaker being reunited with his family and they will continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.”
Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat who worked as an aide in DiMasi’s office before succeeding him in the House, said he was “ecstatic.”
“It’s one step closer to him being home,” Michlewitz said. “A lot of people who are close to him, we’re all calling each other and talking, and we’re all very excited.”
Michlewitz said he had spoken with Deborah DiMasi on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s been hard. It’s been hard on the family, it’s been hard on a lot of people, and we do miss him,” Michlewitz said. “He’s been sick and it’s been hard on people who can’t be there for him. For her, it’s been excruciating.”Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia