What We Learned From Sal DiMasi

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Barring a successful (or incredibly lengthy) appeal, Sal DiMasi will spend the next 8 years in jail. It’s a jarring sentence that will consume almost half of his expected remaining years.

For many of his former colleagues, this should be sobering news. There have been a string of scandals facing politicians in state government. For the most part, these have resulted in relatively short jail terms, if any.

DiMasi’s sentence will likely be viewed differently — its longer and he was no ordinary legislator. DiMasi was, at least on a dissenting vote basis, the most powerful speaker in recent memory. He managed to get resoundingly reelected as Speaker despite ethics questions hanging over his head. Even after the trial, sitting legislators were willing to write supportive letters on his behalf.

Beyond the obvious lesson – don’t take bribes – what have we learnt from the trial?

First, politicians need to subvert their natural inclination to talk their way out of things. Defending one’s self in the court of public opinion can have a negative impact on the trial. It’s clear from yesterday’s proceedings that DiMasi’s post-conviction press conference entered into the judge’s thinking to point that he entered a video of it into evidence at the pre-sentencing hearing.

Just as Chuck Turner talked his way into a 3 and half year sentence, DiMasi’s unwillingness to display full contrition worked against him today. The subtle wordplay necessary for a valid appeal and common in political speech means little before a determined judge.

Second, DiMasi got used brutally by his so-called friends. According to court filings, Joe Lally made millions from Cognos, while McDonough and Vitale made hundreds of thousands (some of which might have gone to DiMasi eventually). DiMasi got $65,000. What did he lose? His public standing, his law license, and his $59,422 yearly pension.

The case raises several broader questions for the way we conduct business in this state. It showed in stark relief how the earmarking process can be used to subvert an open, competitive bidding process. The state operating budget and capital authorizations are rife with specific earmarks naming what groups get what money; those are now open for question.

The potential for conflict of interest between a legislator’s responsibilities and outside employment is also raised as an issue. DiMasi’s law practice, through his partner, allowed money to flow to him indirectly with essentially no services rendered. Closing off this avenue of influence will prove difficult to fix, particularly since legislative interest in addressing it will likely be minimal.

Beyond the details specific to the DiMasi case, we should ask ourselves – why us? why again? Its been a long sorry parade of corruption over the past few years. Most of which has been sniffed out by federal authorities. Are our state-level watchdogs up to the task? And what’s wrong with our political culture that we allow this to happen again and again?