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Massachusetts House speakers and their many convictions Summer 2011
Politics and law

Salvatore DiMasi, the former speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who was found guilty of extortion, conspiracy, and mail and wire fraud, faces 25 years in prison at his September 8 sentencing. The Boston Democrat’s June convictions stemmed from a scheme to steer state contracts to a Canadian computer company. Cognos, the tech outfit, got millions; DiMasi, apparently motivated by credit-card debt, loans, and high living to seek supplemental income, got thousands. Governor Deval Patrick, a witness in the case, responded to the verdict by saying, “I hope what it means is the end of a long, sad chapter.”

Others fear a trend. DiMasi is the third consecutive Massachusetts House speaker convicted of a felony. Speaker Extortion succeeded his mentor, Speaker Obstruction of Justice, who succeeded his mentor, Speaker Felony Tax Evasion. DiMasi’s own protégé, Robert DeLeo, currently sits in the speaker’s chair. Like his immediate predecessors, he condemns corruption, but he doesn’t believe that there is much of it on Beacon Hill. “I don’t think I can imagine anything more damaging than the idea that the defendant’s conduct was nothing other than ‘business as usual’ on Beacon Hill,” DeLeo said. “This was definitely not business as usual—and it is a slur on every hardworking public servant to suggest otherwise.”

Less glaring than the speaker-felon streak but even more indicative of Massachusetts corruption is the fact that it took the feds to punish DiMasi’s crimes. No local law enforcer dares take cases against the Bay State’s brass. Massachusetts voters can count on the local media to catch a court officer drinking in a bar while on the clock, or the federal government to catch a state senator on video stuffing a $1,000 bribe into her bra. They can’t rely on local officials to root out the malefactors.

Voters can’t count much on themselves, either. This is a state whose legislature has been controlled by Democrats since the 1950s, whose Washington delegation contains just one Republican, and whose statewide officeholders are all Democrats. Voters serially reelecting scandal-plagued legislators Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, and Gerry Studds sent a clear message that officeholders—so long as they had the right party affiliation—could get away with such diverse offenses as committing vehicular homicide, letting one’s home become a brothel, and seducing a teenage congressional page. If the voters refused to shun such figures, why should other politicians crusade against them?

Massachusetts has a long history of canonizing the corrupt. During his fourth term as Boston’s mayor, James Michael Curley was convicted of mail fraud and sent to his second term in the federal clink. His bronze likeness stands near Boston’s Faneuil Hall. In 1919, the U.S. House of Representatives ejected John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a Curley nemesis and grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, after discovering that voter fraud had elected him. Boston later named its main highway artery (since disassembled) in his honor. Crookedness reached tragicomic proportions in the brothers Bulger—one the state’s most powerful politician, the other its most notorious gangster—during the last third of the twentieth century. Whitey, fresh off the FBI’s Most Wanted list, awaits trial for 19 murders. William, despite setting up his brother’s criminal associates and their family members with hack jobs, remains a cultural guardian of the Athens of America as a Boston Public Library trustee and an overseer emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

In other states, elected scoundrels get jailed. In Massachusetts, they are lionized. It’s not difficult to see how Sal DiMasi arrived at the idea that he could get away with his swindle.

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