Power, politics, and money. All three have always had a place on Beacon Hill. Now, the high-profile corruption trial of former speaker Sal DiMasi is setting the stage for an up close look at how business is done under this dome.
“It’s good for everybody to see how the process works, get it out from behind closed doors, and let the public look at it,” says former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. It’s unclear if the public will like what it sees. After all, DiMasi isn’t the first or the second, but the third Massachusetts house speaker in a row to be indicted by federal investigators.
First there was Charles Flaherty, the House speaker from 1991 to 1996. He stepped down then accepted a plea bargain over income tax violations. Then there was Thomas Finneran. He served as House speaker from 1996 to 2004.
He pleaded guilty to lying under oath in a civil suit over redistricting. Neither received jail time. Then, there’s Sal DiMasi, speaker from 2004 to 2009. Prosecutors now accuse DiMasi of trading his influence on Beacon Hill for tens of thousands in kickbacks from state contracts for a software company.
Sure, each case is different, but three speakers in a row, leaving office in scandal, what does this say about Massachusetts politics? “Well, it certainly says we need to get our House in order,” says Brad Bailey, a practicing defense attorney in Boston, and a former federal prosecutor. “To have three successive in a row get in trouble like this, it means that something is wrong with the political culture in this state,” Bailey says. “I think there’s too much power concentrated at the top. When you have that much power you think you can do almost anything. Good things and bad things,” says George Bachrach, a former state senator.
He says the way Beacon Hill is set up, those at the top wield all the power. “The flow of legislation, the staffing patterns for members’ offices. The creature comforts that people have. Whether your career will rise or fall. Whether you’ll make more money as a chairman because all the chair people are selected by the speaker and the Senate president with added income. That’s a lot of power,” Bachrach says.
If you look at recent corruption cases, the money involved isn’t as much as you might think. Remember former Boston city councilor, Chuck Turner? He was convicted and sentenced to three years for accepting a bribe of just $1,000.
Disgraced Senator Diane Wilkerson was sentenced for taking $23,000 in bribes in the same FBI sting that caught Turner. DiMasi is accused of taking nearly $60,000. Is it enough to jeopardize stature and position? “Well, some would say it’s just the arrogance, and the lack of oversight and the ability to do whatever you want,” Bailey says. “Powerful people dealing with other powerful people on the outside and industry and corporate leaders in the corporate world start to see others making lots of money and they’re not in government. And they’re tempted and when they’re tempted they outta stop and get out and not cross the line,” Bachrach says.
Of course, corruption is not unique to Massachusetts politics, and some say what happens here can’t compare to other states. “I don’t think we’ve caught up with Illinois, a few other states are ahead of us, but it’s not good,” Bachrach says. So what’s the solution? Some say they’re not so sure there is a solution for this kind of problem. “More checks and balances, more airing out of the debate, making sure there’s an open transparent process,” Harshbarger says. “It’s a system that outta be changed, probably made more democratic, made more accountable, as opposed to the kind of top down power structure that we currently have,” Bachrach says. While the cases involving each speaker are very different, taken together, they no doubt shape public perception, and not always for the better.