A decade ago, following several high-profile political corruption cases, Massachusetts lawmakers moved to strengthen the rules about lobbying and who can do it. The resulting legislation, said House Speaker Robert DeLeo at the time, “sends a very clear message to everyone: We are accountable. We hear the public’s cry for reform.”
Unfortunately, that message isn’t as clear as it could be. Whether by accident or design, state lawmakers left a big loophole in their lobbying-reform package — a loophole that convicted felon and former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi is aggressively trying to exploit.
Under current state law, there’s a 10-year ban on lobbying for anyone convicted of a felony in violation of certain state laws. Sounds tough enough. However, the law makes no mention of those convicted of felonies in violation of federal law — and the worst political corruption cases often fall under federal jurisdiction. DiMasi, who was convicted of several federal felony charges, including extortion, now argues the law’s silence on that point should exempt him from the ban.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin rejected DiMasi’s application to register as a lobbyist on the grounds that the intent of state law was to impose the ban for “conduct” — not only for conviction of a state felony. DiMasi is appealing the decision. Meanwhile, DiMasi has registered as a city lobbyist under a new city ordinance that was modeled after the state law. (He recently disclosed that Compassionate Organics, a medical marijuana firm, was a client.)
DiMasi’s effort to register as a lobbyist with the state basically pits the literal words of the law against an interpretation of intent — and Beacon Hill lawmakers should end the confusion. “Whether a conscious decision or an example of poor draftsmanship, this is an oversight that deserves to be corrected. The 10-year lobbying ban is an important public protection that should be amended to apply to federal as well as state felonies,” said Gregory W. Sullivan, a former state inspector general and currently Pioneer Institute research director.
Galvin has added an alternative theory to his case for denying DiMasi the right to register as a lobbyist — that he failed to register as a lobbyist in 2006 and 2007, when, as speaker, he helped a software company win two state contracts. The steering of that contract to the company, Cognos, in exchange for $65,000 in kickbacks, led to his 2011 conviction on federal charges. Galvin now argues that DiMasi’s actions back then were essentially lobbying, and that by not registering as a lobbyist he violated state law.
But that kind of legal maneuvering shouldn’t be necessary to hold DiMasi — or any future convicted felons — accountable. In Massachusetts, the reality is that the task of pursuing political corruption cases is usually taken up by federal, not state, prosecutors. That was true in DiMasi’s case, and with the cases involving two previous former speakers — Charles Flaherty and Thomas Finneran. And this month, the federal trial of two city workers on extortion charges is scheduled to begin.
As speaker, DiMasi took money to push a state contract to a certain company. It shouldn’t matter whether that conduct led to a felony conviction under federal or state law. It was criminal. The lobbying ban should apply in either case, and Massachusetts law should send that message loud and clear.