Black Boston looks warily at DiMasi sentencing
MINOR THIEVES get “three hots and a cot’’ in federal prison. Major thieves get sinecures and seats at the head table at charity dinners in downtown hotel ballrooms. At least that’s how a lot of people in Boston’s black community see it. Now they are waiting to see where former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi of the North End will be dining - and for how long - after he is sentenced in federal court on Sept. 8.
According to sentencing guidelines, DiMasi could go away for more than 15 years for his leading role in a bribery and kickback scheme involving state contracts to a crooked Burlington software company. Corruption prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office have recommended a sentence of 12 years and seven months. DiMasi’s lawyer argues that three years would be sufficient for his 66-year-old client. US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf’s opinion will be the only one that counts.
“I hope they get that number right,’’ said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Dorchester minister who works with ex-cons in the city’s black community. “The judicial system has to send the message that the rules apply to the powerful white guys, too.’’ Interest in DiMasi’s sentence among black Bostonians, said Rivers, extends from barbershops to churches to corporate board rooms.
Federal sentences are based on everything from the severity of the crime to the age, health, and personal history of the defendant. At times, the distinctions built into sentencing rules seem to work against minorities. Federal courts and Congress, for example, only recently started to confront the race-based differentials in drug sentencing under which a gram of the inexpensive crack cocaine found in urban areas draws the same penalty as 100 grams of the powder version favored by wealthier, suburban users. Could DiMasi be the political equivalent of the powder user?
Earlier this year, black Bostonians watched two of their leaders - former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson and former Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner - carted off to federal prison after bribery convictions. There wasn’t much of an outcry over their sentences, of about three years each. But many wondered aloud why a federal investigation into liquor licenses only snagged the city’s two most vocal black politicians.
“There’s a high level of concern,’’ said Roxbury activist and publisher Jamal Crawford. “It’s all about the different treatment of black and Latino people by the judicial system.’’ He pointed to other white politicians, including former House speakers Thomas Finneran and Charles Flaherty, who did no time in federal prison after convictions for obstruction of justice and tax evasion, respectively.
No one should lose sleep worrying that DiMasi will manage to skate away with hands free. Judge Wolf isn’t listed in the Who’s Who of soft-hearted jurists - hardly surprising for someone who headed the US Attorney’s public corruption unit in the 1980s. And even if Wolf were inclined toward pity, DiMasi has few mitigating factors going for him other than his age.
It’s almost impossible to see DiMasi doing just three years. DiMasi pocketed $65,000 in the kickback scheme, well more than twice what Wilkerson extorted. Turner, with his measly $1,000, couldn’t even play in DiMasi’s league. Furthermore, prosecutors argue that DiMasi is responsible for a loss of more than $900,000 in taxpayer funds after factoring in payouts to his cronies.
It’s always nice to rise to the top of your field - except at sentencing. As a rule of thumb, elected officials get banged harder in corruption cases than appointed ones. And the higher the elected office, the higher the sentence for corrupting that office. DiMasi was probably the most powerful elected official in the state when he ran his scam. It would make perfect sense that he supplant the modern record for a political corruption sentence in Massachusetts, now held at 10 years by Raymond Asselin, the former head of the Springfield Housing Authority, who siphoned millions of dollars.
And forget about the power of contrition to shave off years from a sentence. DiMasi is so arrogant that he couldn’t even pretend he was sorry after his conviction in June.
Come next week, Sal DiMasi will be judged on the content of his character, not the color of his skin.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.