Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Deck...DiMasi

Choosing the unfortunate acronym PID (Public Integrity Division) MA AG Martha Coakley says her office is ready to track and catch crooked officials. [In the medical world, PID has long meant pelvic inflammatory disease.]

The decades, indeed centuries, of corruption in this commonwealth seem finally to outgrown its use as folklore and comedy. Boston in particular and MA more generally may have lost their wink-wink reflex.

Now comes a real test, one that is out of Coakley's grasp. Following over two years of non-stop theater in the Dianne Wilkerson and Chuck Turner cases, yet another Speaker of the House faces corruption charges. Not only was he high ranking, but unlike the other two lower-level pols, he is not African American.

This latest disgraced Speaker is Salvatore DiMasi. The previous two speakers, Tom Finneran and Charles Flaherty, each admitted guilt, the former to obstruction of justice and the latter to tax evasion.

Finneran cut a plea bargain, to a single charge. Three perjury charges disappeared. He got 18 months unsupervised probation, a $25,000 fine, and restriction from running from pubic office for five years. He has had various high-paying jobs, including being a drive-time radio host. Flaherty received the fine and probation. Both Speakers resigned, but neither spent any time in prison.

What happens in DiMasi's trial — scheduled to start April 25th in Boston — will be fraught with meaning on many levels. Specifically:
  • Affording Justice. The wealthiest and best connected rent the most effective law firms and often seem to get favorable treatment from juries and judges.
  • Race is a Question. Blind justice can't be totally applicable here. Turner's melodrama and paranoid statements aside, two popular black pols went down, and now a big-shot white one is charged. Everyone is looking attentively.
  • Parsing Wording. DiMasi's case looks made for technicalities. Expect his lawyers to torture every nuance of laws and evidence to prove not his innocence, rather the inability of the prosecution to prove his guilt sufficiently given narrow interpretations of the prosecution's case.

Same and Different

DiMasi's case has a few parallels with, and many diversions from, the other two. At the core, all three were indicted by the feds, despite being accused of nefarious deeds in MA only. One might well ask what our AG was doing or not doing.

His indictment is still available at UniversalHub here. The short of it is that software vendor Cognos got contracts with the commonwealth and he allegedly got monthly payoffs for it, in the nature of $57,000. There was lots of money spread around, such as over $2 million commission to Cognos sales agent Joseph Lally and over $600,000 to former DiMasi campaign treasurer and accountant Richard Vitale. Prosecutors claim over 80 criminal acts.

Wilkerson and DiMasi were similar in that each was indicted for personally enriching herself or himself. While Turner is under the same constant fund raising pressure of any pol on short two-year reelection cycles, he never seemed money driven for anything personal.

Wilkerson cut a plea bargain and admitted guilt, as she had in previous tax-evasion charges. Turner stonewalled and so far DiMasi is talking proving his innocence. The courts seem happy to offer that opportunity; First Circuit Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf turned down his multi-prong filing to drop charges this week.
Friday Follow-Up: Wolf also rejected the defense effort to narrow the scope of charges against DiMasi.
So in our allegedly classless America, we actually know that there is considerable deference to the rich, powerful or famous. Despite Coakley's PID and Gov. Deval Patrick's ethics reforms, DiMasi still enters his trial with those considerable advantages.

Having read comments from and spoken to black Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan residents, I know that this case reduces more fundamentally for many. Does the rich white guy walk when the two middle-class black pols go to jail for three and three and one-half years?

Other recent cases exacerbate anger at such discrepancies. In particular, an aide to Mayor Tom Menino got probation on drug possession and dealing, including in City Hall. John M. Forbes was arrested in December 2010. He pleaded guilty, admitted addiction, and sought the court's mercy. He got five years' probation and 1,800 hours of community. While it is not unusual for first offenders on drug charges to receive probation (instead of the 20 years possible in this case), the timing was unfortunate.

Drugs and bribes are different charges. However, this also seems to fit a pattern of white criminals getting better treatment than black ones. Somehow we're not supposed to think or race here, but that may be impossible for many black Bostonians.

Tenor of the Times

Somewhat nationwide, but particularly here, it's ethics all the least in talk. I've recently noticed comments from the peanut gallery at places like the Herald, Globe and UniversalHub, where self-styled wits are proclaiming that DiMasi (in more colorful terms) must be soiling his briefs following the sentencing of Wilkerson and Turner.

Pardon my skepticism. So far, he seems to have shown no interest in admitting any guilt or humbling himself before any prosecutor or judge. We can be reasonably sure also that the now standard set of penalties for Speakers should not be a problem for DiMasi. Certainly none of the Speaker trio has exhibited any sense of shame.

A fair question now is that with judges like Douglas Woodlock and Mark Wolf, is one ready to thump old Sal convincingly? At both Wilkerson and Turner sentencing hearings, Woodlock scolded the devil out of them, calling them on their arrogance and their disrespect for their constituents and the courts.

Allegedly, these federal judges should be above paying attention to the posturing of Patrick and Coakley. Yet, in the larger context, all of government and the voters seem tired of having to assume with good reason that pols — to a one — are crooks.

I still lean toward the privileged likely receiving preferential treatment. It has always been thus, from colonial times and back into England before that. That isn't right.That isn't fair. That isn't American (the ideal at least). Yet it has long been the way in this commonwealth and nation.

I certainly join the residents in Wilkerson and Turner's districts in watching the DiMasi trial, verdict, and in the likelihood of some form of guilty finding, the punishment, or lack thereof. The outcome of this case will speak to reality of ethics in government here.

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Unknown said...

Great post. I like your take on this situation.

Kathleen Conley said...

Brilliant post with incisive political intuition and assessment of the "justice system" as well as the ethical standards in MA politics. Bravo.