With the dawn last year of sweeping new rules for low-income Medicaid recipients, Joe Finn of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance was trying to get a “full grasp” of the changes, when a friend recommended someone who could provide insight into the state’s health care law.
Enter: Salvatore F. DiMasi, the former House speaker and convicted felon, who by spring was meeting with the homeless advocacy group and serving as a consultant on, what Finn called, a “slight retainer.”
“There’s a host of experts and people that he can refer us to,” said Finn, president of the housing alliance. “He’s the guy who is one of the architects of health care reform in Massachusetts.”
Welcome to what DiMasi hopes is the next chapter in his complicated story. One of Massachusetts’ most powerful figures before a 2011 conviction on public corruption charges, the 73-year-old has emerged from a prison sentence, cancer battle, and federal supervised release with an eye trained back on Beacon Hill and Washington.
DiMasi said he believes he can be helpful to policy makers and suggested he may even pursue a second act lobbying at the State House. He feels healthy — he’s in remission for throat and prostate cancer — and says he’s eager, ticking off a series of issues from health care to renewable energy for which he said he “can be a voice.”
That includes on Capitol Hill, where he wants to advocate for prison reform, drawing a parallel to how his wife, Debbie, appealed to a state legislative committee to change state law to allow for medical parole.
“I can do consulting. I can do advocacy. I can even do lobbying,” the Democrat, now living in Melrose, said in a recent, hourlong interview. The State House, he said, is “what I know.”
“Between my knowledge, my experience, my expertise in certain areas, I can be helpful,” he said. “I still have a lot of things I would like to accomplish.”
DiMasi wielded outsized influence during his four-plus years as speaker, helping shepherd the state’s landmark 2006 health care law requiring insurance for most residents and championing same-sex marriage while in office.
But he resigned amid an ethics cloud in 2009, and two years later he was convicted on federal charges of taking $65,000 in kickbacks in exchange for using the power of his office to help a software company win $17.5 million in state contracts. DiMasi’s friend Richard McDonough, a lobbyist and codefendant, also was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Within months of starting an eight-year sentence, DiMasi was diagnosed with cancer. Critical of the care he was receiving in prison, his wife and attorneys pushed for his release. At the time, a federal judge questioned whether DiMasi was also benefiting from his political connections, but he ultimately allowed DiMasi early release shortly before Thanksgiving in 2016, citing the testimony of a doctor who said DiMasi’s health was deteriorating and not likely to improve.
DiMasi has resurfaced with scathing criticisms of the federal Bureau of Prisons, seemingly eager to put his platform as a former state leader to use.
He said he hadn’t had any discussions with lobbying firms about a position and joked to a Globe reporter “if you know anybody looking.”
The state bars anyone from registering or acting as a lobbyist for a decade if they’ve been convicted of certain crimes in state statute; DiMasi was convicted under federal law. Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin, said should DiMasi register, he, like anyone else, would have to report any convictions on his record. “The lobbyist division would have to review them,” O’Malley said.
If DiMasi seeks a formal gig, he wouldn’t be the first to trade on his name and connections following a federal conviction. Former speaker Charles F. Flaherty has served as a lobbyist for years after pleading guilty to tax evasion charges in 1996. His successor, Thomas M. Finneran, has been a registered lobbyist for more than a decade, forming his own firm, Finneran Global Strategies, after he pleaded guilty in 2007 to one count of obstruction of justice.
Greg Sullivan — the former state inspector general whose office discovered that DiMasi and his friends had secretly received payments from the software company, Cognos — said DiMasi paid a price for his conviction, serving five years in prison and losing his pension.
“As far as I can tell, nothing in federal or state law precludes him from working as a lobbyist on either the federal or state level,” said Sullivan, now at the Pioneer Institute, a think tank based in Boston. “That being the case, he should be free to do what he wants.”
The timing of DiMasi’s reemergence isn’t coincidental. Up until mid-November, he had been under federal supervised release for two years, a stretch that also included months of home confinement. By early December, he was on Beacon Hill for the farewell speeches of several House members. The next day, he did an interview on WGBH. Later that month, he was interviewed on WBUR.
His appearance in the House chamber was particularly noteworthy, prompting a sustained applause from lawmakers, who offered little indication of the upheaval his conviction caused less than a decade earlier.
“We are a dramatically better Commonwealth for the passion and talent you brought to this chamber and to the speaker’s office,” departing Representative Jay R. Kaufman said during his farewell speech.
Outside of being recognized by a North End organization in October 2017, DiMasi said he waited until he was “free of any of the legal restrictions” to begin speaking publicly.
“The other reason is, it took 18 months or more for me to feel like I regained my health. I was feeling much better,” he said. “I feel like I can do more.”
Finn, of the housing alliance, said it was a “friend who’s currently in the lobbying world” that recommended connecting with DiMasi. The former lawmaker’s role as a consultant to the group, Finn said, includes helping steer its thinking in the health care realm. “I do believe he’s a person who is focused on issues related to meeting the needs of oftentimes overlooked people,” he said of DiMasi.
DiMasi seems determined to shape his legacy through that type of work. In the Globe interview, as in others, he demurred when asked whether he believes he committed a crime, arguing his past achievements — if not himself — can’t be tainted.
“We can’t relitigate what happened,” he said. “Relitigating it isn’t going to help anything, it isn’t going to help me, it isn’t going to help me move forward, it isn’t going to help people.”
The day the jury found him guilty, DiMasi told reporters that he didn’t mean to do anything wrong, calling the charges an “intent crime” and that he didn’t have the “requisite intent to commit this crime.”
In the recent interview, he indicated he still believes that — “I tried to do everything in the right way” — even while describing the next phase as a “second chance to do some good things” after his conviction.
“It’s just continuing the work that I’ve done,” DiMasi said, “and maybe considering that an interruption.”