When federal prosecutors, backed by the US Bureau of Prisons, asked federal Judge Mark Wolf to release former House speaker Sal DiMasi a few weeks ago, everybody thought it was a done deal.
US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office doesn’t exactly have a warm and fuzzy reputation on matters of crime and punishment. Her office has often been criticized for being too harsh and vindictive when it comes to seeking punishment against those it prosecutes. For that, I’ll offer one name: Aaron Swartz. Look him up.
So when Bill Weinreb, Ortiz’s first assistant, wrote to Wolf, saying the 71-year-old, ailing DiMasi deserves to be freed under the Department of Justice’s compassionate release program, a lot of people thought Sal would be home for Thanksgiving, two years earlier than if he completed his sentence.
But Wolf has been less than enthusiastic.
DiMasi was convicted in 2011 for a scheme in which he and several associates organized $65,000 in kickbacks to him in exchange for directing $17.5 million in state contracts to a software company. Wolf gave him eight years, a stiff sentence.
Wolf appears skeptical of prosecutors who want DiMasi released, repeatedly demanding more information about DiMasi’s condition, not taking at face value what prosecutors have said about DiMasi’s deteriorating health after bouts with cancer of the tongue and prostate.
Weinreb noted that DiMasi “continues to suffer from choking episodes and requires regular esophageal dilations.”
Wolf continues to wonder if DiMasi is getting preferential treatment because he was a big shot. Wolf will hold a hearing Tuesday, at which he’ll push prosecutors on whether other big shots have intervened on DiMasi’s behalf.
Wolf also suggested that one of DiMasi’s codefendants, Richard McDonough, may have claimed to have substance abuse issues because it would allow him to get into a rehab program, and out of prison, sooner.
This is all rather extraordinary, but then there is no love lost between Wolf and a number of federal prosecutors. Some of this goes to the retrial of the sentencing of convicted serial killer Gary Lee Sampson, in which prosecutors demanded that Wolf recuse himself over the appearance of a conflict of interest. Wolf eventually stepped aside. But the bad blood remains.
Some of this is just the natural tension between prosecutors and judges. And some of it is personality driven. Some prosecutors think Wolf is high-handed and likes to hear himself talk.
As for DiMasi, it is rare to find a sentencing judge being more hard-line than the prosecutors who put the guy away, but Wolf’s background goes a long way in explaining that.
Wolf takes an especially dim view of public corruption, seeing it as insidious and as damaging to society, if not more so, as violent crime. As a young lawyer, he joined a Justice Department that was reeling from the stench of Nixonian corruption and became part of Attorney General Ed Levi’s team tasked with cleaning it up. In 1981, he became deputy US attorney in Massachusetts and headed the public corruption unit. The unit he once led won DiMasi’s conviction. That unit is now asking Wolf to release DiMasi.
In more recent years, Wolf has been advocating for the creation of an international anticorruption court. He thinks it could be more effective in reforming rogue, failed states than the International Criminal Court. Follow the money, he says.
But after Tuesday’s hearing, something’s got to give.
Jerry Angiulo, who ran the Mafia in Boston, was the last high-profile local criminal to benefit from compassionate release. Angiulo got a lot of people killed and still was allowed to spend the last two years of his life in the bosom of his family. If Jerry Angiulo could be let out early, surely Sal DiMasi can be.
Letting DiMasi out at this point would not be an act of leniency. It would be an act of mercy.