Sal, Dianne and Chuck

Salvatore DeMasi is the third Massachusetts Speaker of the House in a row to end up a felon.  Charles Flaherty didn’t pay his taxes and Thomas Finneran lied to a grand jury.  Charlie and Tom took pleas and didn’t go to jail.  Tom lost his law license.  Sal went to trial, was found guilty and still thinks he is innocent.  Even my 93 year old mother who followed the trial avidly knew he was guilty.


I think it is inevitable that DiMasi is going to jail.  He was just greedy.  As Speaker he hung around with men who were a lot wealthier than he was and he needed to keep up. 

Scott Leigh wrote yesterday in the Boston Globe

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.

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.’’

DiMasi did do a lot of good things.  We owe gay marriage and health care in part to him.  But that still does not mean he can break the law.

Chuck Turner, my neighbor and City Councilor, and Dianne Wilkerson, my State Senator and one time political ally are both currently serving time.  Both are African American.  No one would ever accuse Chuck of living a lavish lifestyle, but he still took illegal money.  Dianne’s Achilles Heel all along was finances:  personal and campaign.  Somehow her inability to find someone who could manage the money ended with the videotape of her stuffing money in her bra.  Neither of them actually did anything for their money, but at the very least they violated campaign finance laws.  I was worried at the beginning of the prosecution that DiMasi would some how escape.

This time, as Adrian Walker wrote, justice is colorblind.

Sal DiMasi had barely been convicted when a friend called to relate what she, like a sizable portion of the city’s population, feels about the verdict: relief.

“I was worried that he wouldn’t get convicted,’’ she said. “The black community would have gone crazy, after what happened to Chuck and Dianne.’’

That would be Chuck Turner and Dianne Wilkerson, the two Roxbury pols serving time for accepting bribes in exchange for helping a federal informant get a liquor license. They are in prison, and appropriately so.

Part of the backdrop of the DiMasi affair had been a sense that white politicians skate or at least face less harsh punishment. The wrist slaps handed out to former speakers Charlie Flaherty and Tom Finneran were often cited to me as evidence that justice is not necessarily blind.

It didn’t help matters that DiMasi was treated with kid gloves when he was arraigned, driven away from the federal courthouse in a fancy sports car. Wilkerson’s house was ransacked by federal agents, supposedly looking for the money she had taken, and Turner was led away from his City Hall office in disgrace on the morning he was arrested.

My point is not that Turner and Wilkerson were somehow mistreated. They weren’t. But the notion that justice has been evenly applied is good news for everybody.

In sheer financial terms, DiMasi’s crimes were in a different league from the other two. Wilkerson got $23,500, Turner accepted $1,000. DiMasi took close to $60,000 in cash and had access to hundreds of thousands more that was funneled to his close associates. Though he will not be sentenced until September, his sentence is very likely to exceed those of the other former elected officials.

“There was no way these nickel-and-dime crooks were going down, but DiMasi wasn’t,’’ said the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III of the Ella J. Baker House. “You have to give DiMasi credit: He knew how to really steal.’’

People on Beacon Hill like to talk about “ethics reform,’’ a cause that is clearly a work in progress. Not only does government need to be transparent and free of taint, but lapses must be treated equitably, too. Frankly, that hasn’t always been the case.

So maybe this is a watershed moment for clean government, in a way that DiMasi’s jury probably never contemplated. Justice prevailed. The cynics have been routed. The verdict is in, and it says that corrupt white politicians go to jail, too.

Maybe Adrian Walker is right, but I don’t have a lot of hope that this will change things. We are now watching the current speaker, Robert Deleo, negotiating for slot machines at race tracks.  He just happens to have one in his district.

We don’t need new laws or regulations.  We don’t need ethics reform.  We need politicians that understand the current laws and follow them.  My job is covered by the same laws.  The other day, a homeowner who had been assisted by several co-workers brought in a couple of loaves of home-baked bread.  After he was thanked and he left, we started asked if the value might be over the limit as a gift.  We knew it wasn’t, but we were still thinking about it.  Our elected officials need to think about these things also.

More on Corruption

Nationally the big story is Rod Blagojevich while here in Boston we have Dianne Wilkerson, Chuck Turner, and House Speaker Sal Dimasi.  Let’s look at what is happening with each of them.

Dianne resigned under pressure.  She had lost the election and would have ended her term in January.  She no longer had any influence so why the push to move her out.  It came from the State Senate leadership, from the press, from the black religious community.  Granted, the tapes of her putting cash into her bra were pretty dramatic, but at the time she resigned there had been an arrest only, not a grand jury indictment.  I’m pretty sure I’m right about that.  So why the intense pressure for her to resign?  Were people just tired of another Wilkerson financial mess?  After all her problems with her mortgage and taxes have been around for years.  Or is it gender related?  I just can’t help noticing that of the four politicians I mention in this post, she is the only women and the only one who has been forced to resign.

Chuck has had a lot of press conferences and rallies proclaiming his innocence.  His story has changed a little from “it was a campaign contribution” (which would have been illegal anyway) to “maybe it isn’t me on the tape taking the money”.  He has not resigned and City Council has not pushed the matter except to take away his committee assignments.  Chuck has also raised questions about the FBI.  Questions  which I have written about.

Sal DiMasi’s good friend, accountant and golf buddy was arrested for violation state laws about lobbying.  Although I think the situation stinks there has been, so far, no direct link to Sal except some email.  No one is asking Sal to resign from the House or even leave his post as Speaker.  Is email maybe less damning that video?  I wonder if House members are just letting the situation alone until January when there will be an election for Speaker.  It will be interested to see if he is re-elected. Expect more on this as time goes by. 

Then there is Blago.  He says he can’t tell us what is going on because his lawyer says to save it for court, but he’s not resigning.  Barack Obama can’t release his list of staff who had conversations with Blago which he says will clear the transition of any taint until U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald gives the OK.  Did Fitzgerald jump the gun here?  There has not been any indictment from a grand jury yet, just those very entertaining wire tap transcripts.  Christopher Hayes  blogging in the Nation asks

But here’s my question: My understanding of the law is that there’s a distinction between personal pecuniary interests/compensation and campaign fundraising. In other words: it would be manifestly illegal, obviously, if Blago was “selling” the seat in the sense of trading it fro cash for himself. But is trading the seat for fundraising help really illegal? and if so, doesn’t that mean that a huge percentage of political transactions are illegal, including all those conversations during the primary about Obama inducing HRC to drop out in exchange for fundraising help to retire her debt?

Using the Hayes standard of personal gain, Dianne is alleged to have taken cash for herself.  Chuck allegedly took cash to “take his wife to dinner” and we aren’t sure what the allegations are for Sal and Blago.

Race and Corruption

Both the State Senator, Dianne Wilkerson, and as of yesterday, our City Council member, Chuck Turner, have been accused by federal prosecutors of taking bribes and then lying about it.  Both were caught on tape in sting operations.   Chuck is a neighbor.   I know both and have worked with them on various projects including constituant services.  I have supported their campaigns.  So this is a major shock.  I have mixed feelings and a lot of questions about the situation. 

First, there is the question of how much we can trust the Boston FBI office.  This is the office that had agents in bed with the Winter Hill Gang and James Bulger.  One agent has just been convicted of murder and will probably finish his life in prison.  So when they produce evidence that two black politicians representing the largest concentration of African-Americans in the City of Boston I have to feel to some degree that this is racial, a singling out of two office holders who are black and trusted by the community.

Second, assuming that this was a trap set by the FBI why would either of these two intelligent people walk into the trap?  Have they taken bribes all along and just happened to get caught this time?  Why didn’t they refuse the offered money?

Third, why are they being prosecuted when the current Speaker of the House, Sal DiMasi, is suspected of rigging a state contract bid so a friend could benfit?  I do know the answer to that one:  The investigation of that situation is on-going with it just having been turned over to the Attorney General.

Finally, I want someone to do a study of all the African-American officials nationwide and through the last 40 years who have been brought down by scandal.  There has to be more than selective prosecution because of race.  Is there some feeling of entitlement that develops once they have been elected?  And they are all smart people who should have been able to learn from history.

The following quote from Chuck Turner in an interview conducted prior to his arrest which will be published in the Boston Globe Magazine tomorrow as part of a column by Tom Keane  I find troubling.

From an ethical standpoint, I don’t think the vast majority of Congress should be allowed to sit. Ethics should include a commitment to the needs of the people of this country which the Congress has not displayed. Given the fact that all our state governments and the federal government is controlled by money, I think it is hypocritical to talk about ethics when you talk about our political leaders or our business leaders, religious leaders, etc.

Its time for Americans to admit that ethics never have had a significant influence on American politics. If Americans cared about ethical behavior, why did slavery last for two hundred years and neo slavery last for another two hundred? Why does America have the weakest laws in the Western World to protect a working person right to have a fair return on their labor. Why were the Irish treated as animals when they were driven to America by the politics of the English ancestors of the Yankees who treated them as if they were black when they were driven here. I’m surprised Tom. I didn’t think you were in denial of the reality of the moral depravity of this country.

Is Chuck really saying that because the political system is controlled by money rather than by higher moral principles a green light to take a bribe?  Is this the “everyone else does it” excuse?

Yes, there is money in government.  Money gets spent and contracts get let.  That is how governement gets things done.  If he is talking about the election/campaign system being corruptive, there is truth there.  But I’m not sure that money is the only reason slavery persisted and is not the only reason government often fails to act.  Is the real issue that Turner and Wilkinson are still trapped in a world that sees everything as racial, everything though the eyes of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s while the world has moved on?

The Boston Globe quoted several young men who are likely to run for Turner’s seat.  Ego Ezedi, Carlos Henriquez, and Scotland Willis have all run unsuccessfully for City Council.  All expressed the same general idea that maybe it was time to move on.  That maybe it was time to stop looking constantly through a racial lens.  Ezedi in particular looks to Barak Obama:

Ego Ezedi, the executive director of the Roxbury YMCA who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 2003, said: “I am not a black politician. I have never represented myself as that. I’m a public servant who happens to be black.

“This is not a black-white issue; it’s an ethics issue,” he said of the arrests of Wilkerson and Turner.

Ezedi added that he draws more inspiration from the way Barack Obama’s campaign energized younger voters. “It’s important for all of us to transcend boundaries of race when it comes to politics,” he said, “and what better time than now, especially when you look at what’s happening nationally?”