Sal DiMasi has a track record of great accomplishment as Speaker of the House, with victories that include health-care reform, gay-marriage protection, and an economic-development package that offers unprecedented support for the arts, to cite just three examples. For that reason, many in Massachusetts — particularly progressives — have been willing to overlook the so-called process issues that they complained about under DiMasi’s predecessor, Tom Finneran.
But those process issues — secretive bill-writing practices, heavy-handed control of votes, and centralized management of committees — are behind the Speaker’s current difficulties. Those difficulties now imperil his ability to lead, and to produce any further good for the Commonwealth.
DiMasi has been accused of pushing through legislation at the behest of his friend and accountant Richard Vitale, who had loaned DiMasi $250,000 secured by a third mortgage on his residence; of steering a multi-million-dollar software contract to a company represented by another friend; of accepting a free golf game from a race-track owner and potential casino developer while casino legislation was pending in the House; and of changing or blocking bills to benefit a close friend, developer Jay Cashman.
In all of this, it is entirely possible — in fact, believable — that DiMasi has committed no serious violations of ethics, nor abused his power on behalf of his friends. But because of the opaque manner in which his House runs its business, there is no way to know. In total darkness, people can speculate about anything without it being disproved.
Take, for example, allegations that DiMasi used his position to aid Cashman. Cashman did get what he wanted in several instances. Very likely, though, those gains came about innocently, for legitimate reasons, and without DiMasi’s personal involvement.
Unfortunately, as with so much House legislation, the legislation benefiting Cashman happened without public discussion, in DiMasi lieutenant Robert DeLeo’s Ways and Means Committee, and flew through to passage with little debate.
That is DiMasi’s preferred process: disputes, disagreements, and compromises get worked out behind the scenes. All the public sees is a finished product, a unified concurrence; nobody’s fingerprints are on any specific piece of the puzzle.
As a result, it is easy to speculate that DiMasi intervened for Cashman’s benefit. And, when DiMasi sent his leadership team out to defend him this past week, it was easy to dismiss them as reflexively defending their boss.
But does anyone seriously believe that the Speaker would change his position on casino gambling because he was treated to a round of golf, even at a fancy country club? Never mind that when, this week, DiMasi hastily paid off the Vitale loan, the balance was $178,000, which indicates he was already paying it down.
The most damaging blow to DiMasi is due to his having treated each new allegation blithely, shrugging them off with his trademark winning smile and one-liners. That technique has proven to be a losing strategy. He has allowed each charge to stick, and the accumulated weight is dragging him down.
So this week, DiMasi broke a two-week silence on the topic with a letter to House members and a series of media interviews. He admitted no wrongdoing, and offered no explanation. Instead, he blamed the media, the Republicans, and unnamed “enemies” for the allegations against him.
His indignation resonates as disingenuous and it is unbecoming. The public has every right to ask whether DiMasi is manipulating the legislative process to benefit his friends. And if he is the target of those who wish to bring him down — well, that can hardly come as a surprise to him.
As recently as this March, when he slew the governor’s casino bill, DiMasi seemed perfectly happy to bask in the media’s coronation of him as the King of Beacon Hill, and at ease with the slings and arrows that come with the crown. He has seen enough of his predecessors rise and fall — from Tom McGee to Tom Finneran — to know that the one on top is always the number-one target.
DiMasi’s dismissive attitude recalls Deval Patrick’s initial defense of his completely inexplicable and egregious phone call on behalf of his friends at Ameriquest early in his term. They both seemed to lack an appreciation of just how powerful they are, and how much legitimate concern the public has over how that power is wielded. For the governor, a political novice, there was at least a dab of plausibility in his claim of being surprised by the reaction to his call. DiMasi has no claim of political naiveté to hide behind.
“Sunlight,” former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis stated, “is said to be the best of disinfectants.” It is also the best defense. If DiMasi would stop posturing, welcome the Ethics Committee’s investigation, and lead a more open, transparent House, his “enemies” would be unable to stir speculation about what he is doing behind the closed doors.
Like the late Tip O’Neill — who served as Speaker of the Massachusetts House before going to Washington, where he attained leadership of the national House — DiMasi is a proud lunch-bucket Democrat who has been admirable in his support for key progressive measures. O’Neill, in his career, learned that how you do things can be as important as what you do. It’s a lesson the Phoenix hopes DiMasi will take to heart.