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Scot Lehigh

Politicians, take heed of DiMasi tale

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / June 17, 2011

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IT WAS an arresting tableau there in Courtroom 10 of the John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse. The verdict had been read, the jury excused. Sal DiMasi, who once stood at the pinnacle of State House power, was now officially a felon.

His wife Debbie wept. DiMasi hugged her, patted her back, whispered something to her. But whatever he said could only qualify as cold comfort, for unless his legal team can overturn his conviction on appeal, DiMasi, 65, is headed to prison for a substantial part of what’s left of his life.

As a longtime DiMasi skeptic, I can’t say I’m surprised. But watching DiMasi, I found myself wondering this: Even if a politician has no sense of personal integrity, wouldn’t the specter of this kind of ruinous end be enough to keep him from a criminal abuse of the public trust?

Outside the courthouse, Beacon Hill’s newest felon seemed in denial about what had just happened. Either that or his mental teleprompter had mistakenly loaded the “I’ve just been vindicated’’ speech rather than remarks better toned for a guilty verdict.

DiMasi thanked his family for standing by him “through this terrible ordeal,’’ then added: “All of the people in my community that every day supported me, encouraged me, and knew that I was not guilty of this crime, I thank them . . . I told all of you when I was indicted that I never made any decision unless it was based on what I thought was in the best interest of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts [and] my constituents.’’

The jury, of course, felt otherwise, and with good reason. No less credible a source than Steven Topazio, DiMasi’s former law associate, had testified about the way he had funneled $65,000 in Cognos money to DiMasi. And how, when the Globe — through the tenacious reporting of Andrea Estes — started to unravel the scheme, DiMasi had suggested that he fudge or lose the relevant part of his check register.

DiMasi soon switched to self-pitying mode. “You spend a lot of time, 30 years, being a legislator and doing what you think is right and helping a lot of people — you know, I don’t think that there was a full story told in there about my record and about what I’ve accomplished as a speaker or a legislator, and I think that was all lost in this case,’’ he said.

A criminal prosecution, of course, isn’t about the assessment of an entire career, but rather a few specific shady acts. And no matter what you’ve accomplished, it doesn’t justify taking kickbacks. But if DiMasi didn’t think the full story had been told in this case, why didn’t he take the stand himself?

Pressed several times on that point, DiMasi didn’t reply, but the answer is obvious. He and his team knew that doing so would have opened him to a devastating cross-examination.

Asked in her post-trial press conference why she thought DiMasi had committed the crime, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz cited greed and high living. “People live beyond their means,’’ she said. “People get into financial trouble and unfortunately think that the resolution or how to solve that problem is by committing a crime that can put money in their pockets.’’

That describes DiMasi perfectly. As speaker, he lived a lifestyle his own earnings couldn’t sustain. Public officials in that situation sometimes start telling themselves, hey, CEOs around the state are begging for a few minutes of my time. What I do is as valuable as what they do, yet they’re earning hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, a year, while I’m only making a fraction of that. I deserve more — and I’m going to find a way to get it.

Watching a haggard DiMasi on Wednesday, you knew he’d give most anything if he could somehow undo his criminal acts. It’s too late for that, of course. If his appeal fails, he’ll have long years in prison to rue the conduct that’s ruined his life. But his plight should serve as a warning for other politicians prone to thinking that they are owed more than they earn.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.