DiMasi’s conviction shows lure of power
He’s elected by just 1/160 of the state’s population, but the Massachusetts House Speaker wields enormous clout over every aspect of Bay State politics.
He — a woman has yet to fill the office — can reward supporters with plum committee assignments and extra stipends and punish critics by condemning them to a political Siberia in the Statehouse basement, all while blocking bills he opposes and pushing others to his liking.
Now in the wake of the third straight felony conviction of a Massachusetts speaker, some on Beacon Hill are wondering if the power of the office is just too great a temptation for mischief — or worse.
The most recent case, the felony conviction of former Democratic House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi on federal corruption charges, is also the most serious and the one that most starkly reveals the power of the office.
The trial not only revealed the ability of the speaker to push his agenda in the 160-member chamber, but also to use that same political muscle to press other state leaders.
During the trial, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick testified about pressure DiMasi put on him to approve one of two state contracts that prosecutors said were part of a kickback scheme that netted DiMasi $65,000 in payments for steering two state contracts worth $17.5 million to a favored software firm.
Patrick said at one breakfast meeting that DiMasi told him, “Don’t forget, that contract is important to me.” Patrick said he ultimately told his staff to go ahead with the deal.
After she signed off on the agreement, Patrick’s budget chief sent an e-mail to a colleague saying, “Everyone is happy. Hope the big guy down the hall is too,” referring to DiMasi.
At another point in the trial, former state Rep. Robert Coughlin testified he agreed to sponsor the first of the two contracts even though he hadn’t written the amendment and knew virtually nothing about it.
Coughlin said he was more than happy to please the powerful speaker’s office.
“It was an honor to do it,” Coughlin testified.
DiMasi, 65, was convicted by a federal jury June 15 on charges of conspiracy, extortion and theft of honest services by fraud. He is set to be sentenced Sept. 8 and could face up to 20 years in prison.
DiMasi’s predecessor, former Democratic House Speaker Thomas Finneran, also ran into trouble in part because of the power he wielded as speaker.
Finneran pleaded guilty in 2007 to a federal obstruction of justice charge for giving false testimony in a 2003 lawsuit over a legislative redistricting plan that diluted the clout of minority voters.
He was sentenced to 18 months’ unsupervised probation and fined $25,000. He later lost his law license.
The charge against Finneran stemmed from false testimony he gave in a voting rights lawsuit that claimed new legislative district boundaries discriminated against blacks and other minority voters in Boston while protecting incumbents, including himself.
Prosecutors said Finneran lied when he repeatedly denied having seen the redistricting map until it was filed with the House clerk.
Ironically, it was perfectly legal for Finneran to play a role in drafting the map, and prosecutors said they did not believe he intentionally tried to dilute the voting power of minorities.
Finneran said he lied because he was proud to represent a largely minority district and was offended by the lawsuit’s claims of racial bias.
Finneran’s predecessor, former Democratic Speaker Charles Flaherty, was forced from office after pleading guilty to a federal felony tax charge. Neither Finneran nor Flaherty served prison time.
The hat trick of convictions has again prompted questions about the speaker’s clout in the marble-lined halls of the Statehouse.
Patrick said last week that the concentration of power “has concerned me for some time.”
“This is not a comment about the worthiness of those leaders or their leadership skills,” Patrick said last Thursday. “Over time, if I understand it correctly, there’s been an awful lot of authority concentrated in the leadership. I don’t think that’s about party. I think that’s about inertia in some respect.”
“That’s an issue that’s worth us all trying to reflect on and think about,” he said.
In the wake of DiMasi’s conviction, Republicans proposed their own slate of ethics changes above and beyond a sweeping ethics overhaul package approved by lawmakers in 2009.
Rep. Daniel Winslow, R-Norfolk, said the past speakers’ self-inflicted woes show the corrupting influence of power.
But Winslow said there’s plenty of blame to go around. He said the speaker ultimately derives his power from the willingness of rank and file House members to be cowed by that power.
“In many instances the power of the speaker is that power which the membership chooses to give the speaker,” he said. “Speakers don’t like losing votes. It causes them to stop very short very quickly to find out what happened.”
“Speakers like to remain in power and they are going to be mindful of that,” he said.
One recent example of the power of the speaker over Massachusetts House members is the issue of casino gambling.
Under DiMasi, the House was opposed to efforts to expand gambling. Under DeLeo the House was suddenly much more amenable, provided the bill allowed slot machines at some of the state’s four racetracks.
Two of those racetracks are in DeLeo’s district.
A recent investigation into the state Probation Department revealed another aspect of the influence of the speaker’s office.
According to the report, 24 of 36 job candidates sponsored by DiMasi were hired, while seven of 12 candidates sponsored by DeLeo were hired, including his godson.
The power of House speakers varies greatly from state to state based on rules and local customs, according to Pam Wilmot, president of Common Cause Massachusetts.
There are states where the speaker has near absolute power and minority party members don’t even get recognized in debates. Other states limit the power of leadership, requiring that every vote be a roll call vote — instead of allowing the speaker to gavel through bills on voice votes.
While the rules in Massachusetts give the speaker tremendous power, Wilmot said, some speakers have been more willing to use that power than others.
She said Finneran — once dubbed “King Tom’’ for pushing through a rules change that would have allowed him to remain speaker for life — was among the most controlling during the years he served as speaker from 1996 to 2004.
By comparison, the current speaker DeLeo is more tolerant of dissent, she said.
Part of the problem is that if a speaker is too lax, the chamber can quickly become ungovernable. If a speaker is too controlling, the chamber can become little more than a reflection of his own personality and agenda.
“You want a balance of getting the benefit of every representative’s input and best ideas and having a free and open debate without having total chaos,” Wilmot said. “We are pretty far away from chaos.”