Many House lawmakers sidestep questions
But some deny that ‘culture of corruption’ exists
Minutes before their former leader walked out of the federal courthouse yesterday with reddened eyes and quivering lip, a newly minted felon, Massachusetts legislators gathered in the House chamber for their annual group photo, sharing laughs and applause at their stately desks.
“Get a big smile,’’ the photographer said as he peered at them with an antique camera.
House lawmakers seemed to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, cheering floor speeches and congratulating one another for passing bills, even as former speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, , a North End Democrat, became their third consecutive House leader guilty of a federal felony.
Many legislators dodged reporters, dashing into the chamber and, on their way out, scurrying away through side exits that allowed them the buffer of a velvet rope.
Public moments of introspection were few.
Some of those who spoke insisted that DiMasi’s conviction had little to do with them or the workings of state government. None offered any regret that they reelected DiMasi speaker before his indictment, but after stories in the Globe flagged some of his behavior. Most of them rejected the notion put forth yesterday by US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz that “the culture of corruption on the Hill has been dealt another blow.’’
“I don’t think there is a culture on Beacon Hill,’’ said Kevin J. Murphy, a Lowell Democrat.
Murphy, like several other representatives, questioned whether DiMasi was guilty: “It’s the jury who said he did it, not me,’’ he said.
DiMasi was a popular figure on Beacon Hill, and lawmakers still feel affection for him, mixed with anguish that they are now being tarred by their association with him.
Frank I. Smizik, a Brookline Democrat, said it was a shame that “a man who could be so successful gets caught in something like this.’’ He also questioned the US attorney’s use of the honest services law to prosecute DiMasi.
“If they want to go after legislators, they can, and this case itself was based upon a law that was already struck down,’’ Smizik said. In fact the law was not struck down, but was narrowed by a recent US Supreme Court decision.
“I’m not going to say he did it; I don’t know,’’ Smizik added. “That’s what the jury said.’’
Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, DiMasi’s handpicked successor, was one of the few on Beacon Hill who acknowledged being shaken by yesterday’s events. DeLeo appeared stunned as he addressed reporters outside the speaker’s office. He said that the public had been let down and suggested that government is now more transparent than it has ever been, a result of laws signed after DiMasi’s fall from grace.
“I have to say, whenever I’ve read the press coverage or on television or maybe seen in evidence at the trial, I always caught the phrase, ‘This was business as usual up on Beacon Hill,’ ’’ DeLeo said. “Quite frankly, every time I read that, a chill came over my body, because that’s not business as usual on Beacon Hill.’’
DeLeo said he feels it is more important than ever to change people’s view of the House.
That may take time. Another disgraced speaker, Thomas M. Finneran, now a lobbyist, was roaming the halls above DeLeo as he spoke, a reminder that even fallen lawmakers retain clout within the institution. Finneran pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice after he downplayed his role in the state’s redistricting process while testifying in a federal lawsuit. His predecessor, Charles F. Flaherty pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion.
Republicans were more forthright in condemning the Legislature yesterday, which the Democrats have long controlled.
US Senator Scott Brown, who spoke of the corruption trial in a recent commencement address, said in a statement that DiMasi jurors sent “a message that the business-as-usual, go-along-to-get-along mentality in Massachusetts politics will not be tolerated.’’
House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. called it “another example of the continuing problems that we can lay at the doorstep of one-party politics’’ and said lawmakers would have to work hard to convince voters that abuse of power in the State House is the exception, rather than the rule.
Smizik agreed the public had lost faith in their leaders, but drew a different conclusion. He said the public has the wrong idea and that legislators are unpopular because they make tough decisions.
“I’m not sure it should be that reaction on the public’s part,’’ he said. “If you have an athletic event, you have teams playing, everyone loves the players. But no one likes the referees, and that’s what we have to do, be referees.’’