The federal judge tasked with deciding whether to grant former House speaker Salvatore DiMasi early release from prison Monday demanded to know if DiMasi is benefiting from political connections that have survived his corruption conviction.
US District Court Judge Mark Wolf Monday ordered federal prosecutors and attorneys for DiMasi to provide him with more information justifying his early release from prison on compassionate grounds.
Wolf set a hearing in US District Court in Boston for Nov. 1 and also issued an eight-page order outlining his reasons for seeking a public explanation for the request made by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office on behalf of the federal prison system and attorneys for DiMasi.
Wolf expressed concern that releasing a state official convicted of corruption could be seen as prosecutors assisting a politically-connected individual, while lesser-known prisoners with similar health issues do not get the same relief.
The judge cited a Human Rights Watch report that showed the US Bureau of Prisons — which legally must launch compassionate relief requests — advocated for compassionate release an average of 24 times annually between 1992 and 2012.
“If accurate, these statistics raise the question — which is only a question — of whether the [Bureau of Prisons’] decision to file the Motion was influenced by DiMasi’s former status as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the stature of some who may be advocating for his release,’’ Wolf wrote.
He requested that prosecutors provide him with information about the total number of people like DiMasi who have also been recommended for early release because of similar concerns about their health or their age.
“This question is important to whether a reduction of sentence would reasonably be viewed as a form of unwarranted disparity based on power or privilege, which would injure respect for the law, a relevant [... ] factor the court is required to consider,’’ Wolf wrote.
Wolf also wrote that the request did not clearly state whether the release was being sought because DiMasi is terminally ill or because his age — he is now 71 years old — qualifies him as an elderly person under federal prisoner rules who may qualify for early release for that reason.
“The government has provided the court only unverified statements, but not any evidence, regarding DiMasi’s medical history in prison, current medical condition, prognosis, or ability to function in prison,’’ Wolf wrote. “The court must have evidence, and a complete explanation, to understand and evaluate the grounds for the Motion. Neither has yet been presented.’’
The Globe reported last week that prosecutors filed the request because DiMasi recently battled cancer and remains severely ill at the federal medical prison in Butner, N.C., his family said. His current release date is November 2018.
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.”
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.
The Globe reported that 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.
Kiley declined comment on Wolf’s order, citing the pending litigation.
His wife, Deborah, has publicly campaigned for her husband’s release for the past several years, pointing to his recurring health problems.
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.
Wolf oversaw the trial and noted in this order issued on Monday that he carefully considered his sentence of eight years in prison before imposing it in 2011. However, he also noted that DiMasi was diagnosed with cancer after his imprisonment.
“The Motion presents the court an opportunity to decide whether the eight-year sentence that was most appropriate in 2011 should now be reduced because of an unanticipated deterioration of DiMasi’s health,’’ Wolf wrote. “That decision too must be made carefully.’’
One of the more well-known prisoners to be set free under federal compassionate release program revised in 2013 was 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.