Globe Editorial

For sweeping breach of trust, DiMasi deserves stiff sentence

August 31, 2011

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FORMER HOUSE Speaker Salvatore DiMasi exploited his position to steer two contracts worth $17.5 million to a Burlington software company in exchange for payoffs for himself and his confederates. He set the tone and called the shots. The last thing DiMasi should expect at his sentencing next week is leniency.

Federal prosecutors are recommending a prison term of 12 years and seven months. It would be the most severe federal sentence handed down in a political corruption case in Massachusetts. DiMasi’s attorney argues that a three-year term would be plenty in light of DiMasi’s three decades of public service, which included leadership roles on gay-rights issues and Massachusetts’ near-universal health care plan.

Perhaps the good that DiMasi has done would resonate more forcefully had he acknowledged his guilt and taken responsibility for his actions. But he did neither, insisting to the bitter end that he always acted in the best interests of his constituents.

DiMasi, who is 66, has earned an unprecedented term in prison for abusing the public’s trust from a position of largely unchecked power. And a stiff sentence should help to deter corruption and shake up lawmakers who fashioned themselves in DiMasi’s image.

Twelve years and seven months might seem like an excessive sentence recommendation at first blush. In 2006, former California congressman Randy “Duke’’ Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and others. DiMasi was convicted of pocketing $65,000. But the total loss to taxpayers exceeded $900,000 after factoring in the payments to DiMasi’s close associates, according to prosecutors. And unlike DiMasi, Cunningham was contrite and entered into a plea bargain.

Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson and former Boston city councilor Chuck Turner were sentenced to 3 1/2 years and three years, respectively, in recent corruption cases. Neither wielded a fraction of the power that DiMasi did. When it came to creating public cynicism and distrust of government, the former speaker remains in a class of his own.

US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf is free to deviate up or down from sentencing guidelines, which call for a maximum of 15 years and six months imprisonment. But whatever sentence Wolf imposes, DiMasi will likely serve just 85 percent of it based on the federal good time provision.

The right sentence will send a message that can be heard from every selectman’s hearing room in the Commonwealth to the corridors of power at the State House. And in this case, loud is synonymous with long.