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Does Sal DiMasi have to register as a lobbyist? The state says he already lobbied — illegally

Sal DiMasi, former speaker of the House, was at a pre-hearing conference Thursday on his appeal of the secretary of state’s denial of his application to register as a lobbyist.
Sal DiMasi, former speaker of the House, was at a pre-hearing conference Thursday on his appeal of the secretary of state’s denial of his application to register as a lobbyist.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

State officials opened a new front in their fight against former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi’s attempt to register as a lobbyist, alleging Thursday that he illegally acted as one in 2006 and 2007 when, as the House’s top-ranking elected official, he schemed to help a software company win two state contracts.

An attorney in Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office said DiMasi’s actions were in effect lobbying, and that by not registering he violated state law.

Prosecutors have said that in 2006 and 2007, DiMasi helped steer contracts to the company Cognos in exchange for $65,000 in kickbacks, leading to his 2011 conviction on public corruption charges.

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The argument added another wrinkle — and for Galvin, a potential backup plan — in the high-profile dispute. Galvin’s office had already rejected DiMasi’s application to register as a lobbyist, asserting that his federal conviction includes “conduct in violation” of state lobbying and ethics laws, which automatically bars him from lobbying for 10 years, or until June 2021.

DiMasi appealed, contending that the federal counts — including mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion — aren’t specifically included as disqualifying convictions in state statute and that he should be allowed to register. Lobbying, he said in his appeal, is a constitutional right.

But when the two sides appeared for a pre-hearing conference Thursday, Galvin’s office unveiled the second layer to its case.

Should it lose its argument that DiMasi be automatically disqualified for 10 years — thus allowing him to register as a lobbyist — attorney Marissa Soto-Ortiz said, the office would open another proceeding to determine whether DiMasi’s actions that “resulted in his conviction” also constituted executive or legislative lobbying.

Soto-Ortiz said it’s the office’s contention that they, in fact, did, and his failure to register could allow Galvin to suspend or revoke DiMasi’s registration for three years or more.

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“It’s an alternative theory on why he would be unable to lobby,” Soto-Ortiz told the presiding officer, Peter Cassidy, an attorney in Galvin’s office whom the secretary appointed to hear the case.

That stance surprised DiMasi and his attorney, Meredith G. Fierro, who said they believed the hearing was only going to involve arguments over whether he should be automatically disqualified under the 10-year rule.

“We did not expect that this proceeding would be a fact-finding [mission] by the secretary,” she said.

Fierro later told the Globe that she plans to file a motion seeking to stop Galvin from opening the second proceeding. She argued that by raising the second argument the way it did, the secretary’s office violated the legal procedure for launching an inquiry.

DiMasi and Galvin’s office were ordered to file an outline of their legal arguments by August and are scheduled to appear again before Cassidy on Sept. 17.

Soto-Ortiz, however, left the door open to resolving the case outside the hearing process, though under what terms was not clear. “I’m open to discussions with counsel regarding settlement,” Soto-Ortiz said.

DiMasi, who appeared with his wife, Debbie, did not speak during the hearing. He declined to comment as he left the room crammed with more than a dozen reporters and photographers.

Even before Thursday’s developments, DiMasi’s case was treading on rare ground. Galvin’s rejection of his registration was the first time he has barred a lobbyist applicant because of a federal conviction since the Legislature rewrote state ethics and lobbying laws a decade ago.

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Soto-Ortiz said that while lawmakers didn’t include federal statutes within the violations that disqualify someone from lobbying, she believes what DiMasi did was still in “direct violation” of the state law.

“The intent of the Legislature . . . was to impose penalties for this specific type of conduct,” Soto-Ortiz said. “It was not, however, to limit these penalties to persons solely based on a state conviction.”

Fierro, however, contends the statute was narrowly written and shouldn’t apply to DiMasi. “The word that does not appear in that section is ‘conduct,’ ” she said.

Neither aides to House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo nor Senate President Karen E. Spilka responded to questions Thursday about whether DiMasi should be allowed to lobby. Governor Charlie Baker declined to comment, calling it “a question for the courts to answer.”

DiMasi wielded outsized influence during his four-plus years as speaker before resigning under an ethics cloud in 2009. Two years later, he was convicted on charges of taking kickbacks in exchange for using the power of his office to help Cognos win $17.5 million in state contracts.

According to testimony, DiMasi knew in 2006 that Cognos was being considered for a software contract. He then ensured that an earmark dedicating $4.5 million solely for the product was not trimmed so that Cognos would get all the money.

In 2007, witnesses said DiMasi flexed his political muscle to have language inserted into an emergency bond bill that would provide money for performance management software. He then pushed for officials in the Patrick administration to sign a contract for the software, knowing it would go to Cognos. Then-Governor Deval Patrick had testified DiMasi lobbied him for the contract directly.

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DiMasi served five years of his eight-year sentence before earning early release in November 2016 amid a battle with throat and prostate cancer. He said that as of the end of last year, his cancer was in remission.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.