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Joan Vennochi

Power hitter

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz gives no cover to corruption

(Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / June 23, 2011

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HER JOURNEY from Spanish Harlem to first woman and first Hispanic US attorney in Massachusetts is classic American dream.

But Carmen M. Ortiz is also a corrupt politician’s worst nightmare.

“If you use your position to line your own pockets, you are not going to be above the law,’’ said the soft-spoken, straight-talking Ortiz. “We will investigate and prosecute to the fullest extent we can.’’

Dianne Wilkerson, a former state senator; Chuck Turner, a former Boston city councilor; and Salvatore F. DiMasi, a former speaker of the Massachusetts House, know what Ortiz means. Wilkerson pleaded guilty to taking $23,500 in bribes; Turner was found guilty of taking a $1,000 bribe. Both are serving prison terms. DiMasi, meanwhile, awaits sentencing, after his recent conviction on multiple counts of public corruption.

Once a Massachusetts US attorney named William F. Weld launched a political career by chasing, but never indicting, a Boston mayor. Yet despite convictions in several high-stakes political corruption cases and a batting average that would bring Fenway to its feet for another Ortiz, the Ortiz who works out of the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse is far from a household name.

It’s partly a matter of style. “I am not the type to go out and gloat about another notch on my belt,’’ said Ortiz. “This is serious business. It’s difficult, challenging, and sad’’ — sad for the betrayed public and the defendant’s family, she added.

When Ortiz, 55, beat out two male finalists with Irish surnames and more altitude in Boston’s tight-knit legal community, her selection was, unsurprisingly, dubbed a surprise. A lawyer for more than 30 years, she had worked in the US attorney’s office for 12 years and also served as prosecutor in the Middlesex district attorney’s office. She became a prosecutor, she said, because “there’s a greater opportunity to do justice.’’

Her compelling life story resonated with Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry, who recommended her to President Obama. Besides her humble origins, Ortiz is a single mother who raised two daughters after her husband’s death. But in the end, her nomination by Obama came down to “leadership,’’ said Michael E. Mone, the Boston lawyer who headed the screening panel assembed by Kennedy. Ortiz understood what needed to be done to restore morale and redirect resources, he said.

She succeeded Michael J. Sullivan, who left the US attorney’s office after serving 7 1/2 years as a Bush appointee. (Michael J. Loucks served as interim US attorney after Sullivan resigned.)

Wilkerson, Turner, and DiMasi were indicted before Ortiz won Senate confirmation for the top job in November 2009. She then became responsible for overseeing the prosecution of those cases and responded to related controversies. Wilkerson and Turner are both African-American, leading to questions about a double standard when it comes to holding white politicians accountable for wrongdoing. Turner publicly argued that he was targeted as a black man.

Ortiz said prosecutors follow the evidence, “wherever it leads us. We’re not going to prosecute because of race or not prosecute because of race. Especially as a person of color, it’s offensive to me when race is interjected,’’ she said.

She is also blunt about DiMasi’s post-conviction complaint that the federal law applied to his case is “complicated.’’

“That’s nonsense,’’ declared Ortiz. “How complicated is it to understand that it’s wrong to take in money that is directed to you through an intermediary from a company whose sole purpose was to get state business?’’ Using your position of power in that way “is not politics or business as usual,’’ she said.

She said she hopes Beacon Hill will get that message, although it isn’t clear everyone has. After DiMasi’s conviction, state Representative Frank I. Smizik, a Brookline Democrat, challenged the prosecution and declared: “I’m not going to say he did it; I don’t know. That’s what the jury said.’’

To that, Ortiz responded: “I think anyone who questions the jury’s verdict is being willfully blind and intentionally not seeing what they should be seeing.’’

As US attorney, there’s a lot of power behind that view and Ortiz stands ready to use it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.