Adrian Walker

Justice can be colorblind

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / June 18, 2011

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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.

For months, my friend — who asked not to be identified because she works in state government and isn’t authorized to express opinions about the case — had waged a good-natured but intense debate with me over whether DiMasi would be convicted or face punishment if he was. She said white politicians don’t go to jail. I said I had read all the Globe stories and had little doubt that prison was a real possibility for him.

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.

Not to be forgotten, too, is the lingering suspicion that Turner and Wilkerson were taken down in an investigation that some believe should have targeted other people, as well.

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.’’

In the wake of DiMasi’s conviction, lawmakers made much of the role of this verdict in restoring public faith in government. I’m not so sure about that. Public faith in government has taken quite a beating the past few years, but it certainly sends a positive message about corruption, the crime and the punishment.

But it isn’t just the Legislature that the public, or parts of it, sometimes wonders about. People talk about how three consecutive speakers have been convicted. That’s true, but it ignores the soft landings of the first two. Charlie Flaherty committed tax evasion, and his sentence, essentially, was the loss of his speakership. Tom Finneran perjured himself shamelessly and was sentenced, in effect, to a career in talk radio. (In fairness, he also lost his law license.) DiMasi will be the first of the three to face real punishment.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that even the conviction of a corrupt politician has to be viewed through a racial lens. But that is the legacy of the past two cases. If DiMasi’s sentence buries this issue once and for all, that will be good news for everybody.

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.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at