SJC rejects Galvin interpretation in DiMasi lobbying case
Court says ban only applies to state convictions
THE LAW MEANS what it says.
That’s the gist of a Supreme Judicial Court ruling Thursday that a law barring anyone convicted of a set of state corruption charges from working as a lobbyist on Beacon Hill for 10 years does not apply to similar federal convictions — and therefore did not bar former House speaker Sal DiMasi from registering as a lobbyist after he was released from federal prison in 2016, the court said.
Secretary of State William Galvin, who oversees lobbying registration, had rejected DiMasi’s application to register as a lobbyist, arguing that the law is ambiguous on the crimes that should be covered under the statute and that he should be allowed to exercise discretion in determining who is disqualified from registering.
The court rejected that argument. “We conclude that the language of the disqualification provision is unambiguous, and that the Secretary’s interpretation contravenes the plain statutory language and the Legislature’s intent in enacting the provision,” Justice Serges Georges, Jr. wrote in a unanimous decision.
A state hearing officer upheld Galvin’s ruling, but DiMasi appealed that decision to Superior Court, where a judge found in July 2020 his favor and said Galvin had improperly barred him from registering as a lobbyist.
A brief filed in that case on Galvin’s behalf by the attorney general’s office argued that the intent of the law was “to strengthen the integrity of the legislative process in Massachusetts and reduce the risk of corruption in the lobbying profession.” But DiMasi’s attorney argued that the law was clear in banning lobbying only in the case of the state crimes outlined in the statute and that Galvin was improperly extending the ban to similar federal convictions.
Galvin appealed the lower court ruling to the SJC. In its ruling, the court said it took up the case despite the fact that DiMasi’s 10-year ban ended in 2021 based on the “public importance” of the underlying question and the likelihood that it could “arise again in similar factual circumstances.”
Meredith Fierro, DiMasi’s lawyer, welcomed the SJC ruling. “At its core, this case is about statutory interpretation. We are pleased that the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed our view that the statute is clear and unambiguous,” she said in a statement.
In explaining its ruling, the SJC details the legislative maneuvering that preceded enactment of the anti-corruption law in 2009 that includes new rules on lobbyists. While an amendment was proposed that would have banned lobbying by all felons, the decision says, it was not incorporated into the final bill, which spelled out the specific state crimes that would trigger a 10-year lobbying ban.
“We must presume that the Legislature intended what the words of the statute say, and where the language is clear, it is ‘conclusive as to legislative intent,'” the SJC said in its ruling, drawing on earlier court decisions.
Galvin, in a statement issued on Thursday, suggested he will file legislation that would cover convictions such as DiMasi’s in the state lobbying law. “Given the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling today, I am concerned about the future of the Commonwealth’s lobbying laws,” he said. “I will be filing legislation to update the statute, and it’s my hope that the Legislature will recognize the need to ensure that public officials convicted of charges relating to corruption and others who commit serious crimes must be prohibited from being paid to work as lobbyists.”
He reported earning $62,500 in lobbying fees in 2021. For the first half of 2022, the latest period for which lobbying data have been reported, DiMasi reported $59,700 in lobbying fees from five clients, including the North End Community Health Committee and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The ruling marks the end of a long showdown between DiMasi and Galvin, who were once part of a group of Boston state representatives who in the 1980s regularly gathered outside the State House to share restaurant meals and banter about Beacon Hill doings. Galvin has dismissed the idea that his friendly history with DiMasi made it uncomfortable to assert that the former speaker was barred from registering as a lobbyist.
“It isn’t awkward, it’s the law,” Galvin said about his position four years ago through a spokeswoman.