Friday June 17, 2011

The behind the scenes machinations that led to the conviction of former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi on charges of extortion and fraud among others Wednesday is "definitely not business as usual," said current Speaker Robert DeLeo, but evidence suggests that it is. Mr. DiMasi is the third consecutive speaker to leave office because of ethics charges, and a legislative system that allows leaders to grow arrogant with essentially unchecked power is at the root of the problem.

A federal jury found that Mr. DiMasi used his considerable influence to help a software company win a state contract in exchange for kickbacks, and the former speaker's shock that anyone would regard his actions as in any way illegal testifies to the business-as-usual attitude on Beacon Hill. His predecessors Charles Flaherty and Tom Finneran copped guilty pleas to avoid going to trial on tax evasion and perjury charges respectively, but their sad ends changed nothing on Beacon Hill. Charged with steering $17.5 million in contracts to the software company Cognos in exchange for kickbacks passed through a law partner that would enable him to retire in comfort, Mr. DiMasi was evidently mystified by the verdict even though the weight of evidence brought against him was substantial and damning.

In 2006, Mr. DiMasi ensured that an earmark allocating a $4.5 million contract specifically to Cognos was not trimmed from legislation, and a year later witnesses testified that he used his pull to place language in an emergency bond bill providing funding for another software contract. If any lawmakers smelled a rat they did not speak up, and if they had, the speaker and his team would have certainly punished the legislative upstart politically. The speaker lobbied the Patrick administration personally to back the Cognos contract, and testimony revealed that the governor's team did so in spite of reservations to appease the powerful leader. That Mr. DiMasi was easily re-elected as speaker in 2009 even though the Cognos debacle was unfolding around them attests to either the apathy of the Democratic majority, its members' fear of leadership or both.

Surely legislators don't enjoy kowtowing to powerful leaders in exchange for a few crumbs or to avoid being denied those crumbs. Two opportunities to reform the system so power is not dangerously concentrated at the top have been squandered but the DiMasi conviction provides a third. Voters should demand that lawmakers clean up their house this time. If Speaker DeLeo is as troubled as he says he is about the actions of his predecessor he will be at the forefront of the reform effort. Or will it be business as usual?