Disgraced former House speaker Sal DiMasi has won the right to once again roam the halls of the State House — this time as a lobbyist. But unless the court decision giving him that right is overturned, its implications for winking at political corruption remain enormous.
The ruling last week by Superior Court Judge Robert Gordon seriously narrows the state law that was originally aimed at keeping lobbying in this state clean — and putting in place some guardrails on its practitioners. It’s what separates the profession from influence peddling — or should.
DiMasi was found guilty in federal court, in 2011, of taking $65,000 in kickbacks in exchange for using the power of his office to help a software company get $17.5 million in state contracts. He was sentenced to eight years in federal prison but won compassionate release in 2016 for cancers he has said are now in remission.
By March of 2019, the man who had wielded tremendous power as speaker, from 2004 to 2009, applied to register as a lobbyist.
Secretary of State William Galvin rejected DiMasi’s application, citing a state law that prohibits those convicted of serious crimes from serving as lobbyists for 10 years following their convictions. So no matter what happens, DiMasi will be able to lobby on Beacon Hill by June of 2021.
But Gordon’s ruling has made this a far bigger issue than whether one convicted former politician can make an early return to public life.
“This sets a very bad precedent,” Galvin said in an interview. “The rationale employed by the court makes no sense.”
The judge found the state law in question refers only to convictions for state crimes, not the federal crimes DiMasi was found guilty of.
“If, as the Secretary contends, the impetus for the 2009 amendments . . . was the fact that DiMasi and other elected officials were subjects of federal investigation, the Legislature’s failure to enumerate any federal statutes as triggers for automatic disqualification is all the more telling,” Gordon wrote. “Time and time again the Legislature has shown that it knows how to provide for a broader range of consequential triggers when it intends to do so.”
Galvin argues that it’s unfathomable that lawmakers didn’t intend to include federal crimes under the law.
“It’s the same [illegal] conduct that’s at issue here,” Galvin said, arguing that when DiMasi abused his office as speaker he was actually taking money from a private company to lobby the executive branch on their behalf.
“Think about what it means to be a lobbyist,” Galvin said. “You’re taking money to influence public policy and to interact with legislators.”
Just as problematic would be implications for others regulated by the secretary of state, such as securities professionals.
“So if you’ve been convicted by the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] of fraud,” asked Galvin, “does that still mean you’re okay to sell securities here now?”
Galvin said he is asking Attorney General Maura Healey’s office to appeal Gordon’s ruling. But beyond that, he’d just like to see the law “fixed” by the Legislature to eliminate any possible ambiguity.
Arguments about legislative “intent” — like those raised by Judge Gordon — are often like trying to read tea leaves. And just as often a bit of ambiguity is the intent — a way of achieving legislative compromise when a passage looks rocky.
Enacting lobbying, ethics, and campaign finance reform — all pieces of the same anti-corruption playbook — wasn’t easy back in 2009. Fixing the law now to make it say what it means won’t be easy either — but it will be essential to the state’s future political reputation.
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