SJC hears Sal DiMasi lobbying case
Decision hinges on whether federal conviction is disqualifying
FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER Sal DiMasi is a convicted felon. But can he become a lobbyist?
State law prohibits someone convicted of a felony under certain state laws from lobbying for 10 years. The Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday heard arguments in a case over whether a federal felony conviction – rather than a state conviction – bars DiMasi from lobbying. Although DiMasi has passed the period of the 10-year ban, the SJC decided to consider the question in case the issue arises in the future.
DiMasi, a North End Democrat, was House speaker from 2004 to 2009 when he resigned while under federal investigation for bribery and extortion. He was convicted in federal court of multiple charges related to accepting money for political favors. DiMasi served five years in prison out of an eight-year sentence, then was granted “compassionate” early release while battling cancer. He tried to register as a lobbyist, but Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office rejected his application on the grounds that he was barred from lobbying due to his conviction.
DiMasi argues that the language of the statute automatically disqualifying someone convicted of a felony only applies to crimes under specific state laws related to lobbying, ethics, and campaign finance, not federal crimes – even if the conduct that was the subject of the federal crime is similar to something that would be prohibited by state law. “Salvatore F. DiMasi was not convicted of violating any of these laws. So he is not subject to automatic disqualification,” DiMasi’s attorney, Meredith Fierro, wrote in a court brief.
The case has pitted one-time friends against each other — Galvin and DiMasi were part of a close group of young Boston state reps while serving in the House together in the 1980s.
In court, several justices quizzed Fierro on why the Legislature, at the same time as it was tightening other lobbying laws, would narrowly restrict automatic disqualification to only cases involving these specific statutes. It also questioned whether that was an appropriate reading, since the law has what appears to be an ambiguity or a drafting error. It applies the automatic ban on lobbying only to felonies that occur under one of the three statutes, but one of those statutes only includes misdemeanors, not felonies.
Fierro said the law “means what it says.” She pointed out that Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, this past legislative session introduced a bill to close the loophole and apply the automatic ban on lobbying to any federal or state public corruption crime. “It was sent to study,” Fierro said. “That tells us all we need to know about the legislative intent in this regard.”
“If the Legislature decides it’s absurd not to include federal convictions or convictions in other states, it can amend the law,” Fierro added.
But Galvin’s brief says reading the law to only apply to state convictions, as the Superior Court judge did, is illogical because it means that whether misconduct bars someone from lobbying “turns on the happenstance of whether the applicant was convicted in state or federal court.” It also conflicts with the Legislature’s intent in passing the lobbying law, which was “to strengthen the integrity of the legislative process in Massachusetts and reduce the risk of corruption in the lobbying profession,” assistant attorney general Julia Kobick wrote in a court brief filed on Galvin’s behalf.
Galvin argues that DiMasi’s conduct of bribery fits under the law requiring automatic disqualification, regardless of which court he was charged in.
Assistant Attorney General Julie Green argued in court that the law was intended to restore public confidence in the legislative process by strengthening lobbying laws. Limiting the applicability of the statute so narrowly “would undermine that purpose and deprive the people of Massachusetts of the substantial benefit provided by the statue by excluding serious criminal convictions for no other reason than they were prosecuted in a different jurisdiction.”
DiMasi has now registered as a lobbyist and listed his clients this year as North End Waterfront Health, Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, and Montachusett Veterans Outreach Center. He reported lobbying for the organizations on budget and economic development bills.