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Supreme Judicial Court says former speaker Thomas Finneran must lose pension

Former speaker of the Massachusetts House Thomas Finneran in 2007.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Former speaker of the Massachusetts House Thomas Finneran in 2007.

Reversing the decision of a lower court judge, the state’s highest court ruled Wednesday that former House speaker Thomas Finneran must forfeit his public pension because he was found guilty of a federal crime that related to his former office.

The decision could cost Finneran more than $470,000 in future retirement benefits, according to court records.

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“Finneran’s crime directly concerns actions that he had carried out when he served as speaker, in his role as speaker,” the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in a unanimous 19-page decision written by Justice Barbara A. Lenk.

The decision affects Finneran’s case alone and brought to a close a legal drama that began when Finneran was convicted of obstruction of justice for lying under oath in 2007, three years after he resigned as speaker.

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The state’s Retirement Board revoked Finneran’s pension in 2012, but in an appeal of that decision, Boston Municipal Court Associate Justice Serge Georges Jr. ruled in 2015 that Finneran’s conviction could not be linked to his role as speaker. He ordered the annual pension reinstated, retroactive to 2012.

But this week, the Supreme Judicial Court rejected Georges’ legal basis for his decision, finding a “factual” connection between Finneran’s lies and his position as House speaker.

It was not immediately clear whether Finneran will have to repay the Retirement Board for any money he has collected.

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State Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, whose office overseas the Retirement Board, would not comment.

Nicholas Poser, an attorney for Finneran who specializes in public pension law, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the decision.

“I thought that we had made a very cogent argument that Mr. Finneran’s conviction was not directly. . . related to his job as speaker of the House,” Poser said. “The SJC didn’t see it in that position.”

He added, however, that the decision does not affect other pension cases involving public officials, which have been the subject of increasing legal disputes before the high court in recent years, according to Poser and other legal analysts.

“The SJC is not viewing this as breaking new ground; they’re seeing this as a reiteration of standards they’ve already enunciated,” said Katherine Hesse, of the law firm Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane. “I think this is a very high profile example of the way their cases appear to be going lately.”

Finneran resigned as speaker in 2004 and pleaded guilty in federal court three years later to obstruction of justice for lying under oath in a federal civil lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the state’s 2001 redistricting plan on the basis that new legislative districts discriminated against minority communities.

Finneran had said under oath that, as the state’s most powerful politician, he had no involvement in the redistricting process, a statement he later agreed was a lie.

Poser has argued that Finneran’s conviction could not be tied to his duties as House speaker, a post he had held from 1996 until his resignation; Finneran did not testify in his official capacity as speaker, he had been discussing events that occurred years earlier, and the testimony did not matter to the duties of his job, Poser argued.

The Supreme Judicial Court rejected those arguments, however. While agreeing that Finneran’s conviction “does not directly implicate his duties as speaker of the House, it is nonetheless inextricably intertwined with his position.”

The court found that Finneran worked on the redistricting plan in his capacity as speaker, and that he had an “admitted motivation” for the lie: “By his own account, Finneran provided his false testimony to vindicate his conduct as speaker of the House regarding the redistricting plan,” the court said.

“This further underscores the factual connection between Finneran’s false testimony and his work on the redistrict plan as speaker of the house,” the court ruled.

The high court also took the rare step of stating its position on Finneran’s claim that a public official’s forfeiture of his pension amounts to an excessive penalty under the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The court had ruled last year that a Peabody police lieutenant should not have to forfeit more than $650,000 in pension benefits after his conviction for job-related misdemeanors because the forfeiture was excessive punishment.

In its decision Wednesday, the court ruled that Finneran could not make that claim because he did not raise it in his official appeal. However, the court added, even if Finneran could raise the claim, he would not be entitled to the same relief as the Peabody lieutenant because his crime was worse and carried a stiffer punishment.

Milton Valencia can be reached at Milton.Valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia
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