Taking the Totality of DiMasi's Record, Was an Eight-Year Sentence Justified?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sal DiMasi grew up in a cold-water flat in the North End of Boston, sharing tight quarters with his parents, two brothers and his Italian grandparents, who had emigrated to the U.S. years before. He was a good student and a good athlete.

When he graduated from Christopher Columbus High School, a now-closed Catholic school in the North End, with the Class of 1963, he went straight to Boston College, a Jesuit school, and received a bachelor's degree in accounting in 1967. Three years later, he graduated from Suffolk University Law School and went to work as an assistant district attorney, prosecuting criminals in Suffolk County.

This was an unusual background for someone who would eventually become a champion of liberal causes in the Massachusetts legislature.

Look at the totality of DiMasi's legislative career, (1979-2009), however, and you see he was never afraid to take up a controversial or unpopular cause, nor reluctant to help someone simply because his heart ached for them, not because that person was a big shot or could do something for him in return. He seemed instinctively drawn to the little guy, the underdog.

Arline Isaacson, who co-chairs the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Caucus, remembers how DiMasi stepped bravely into the spotlight in 1983, when he was a member of House leadership by virtue of his chairmanship of the Committee on Banks and Banking, to advocate for the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Bill. "This kind of legislation might not sound very controversial today," Isaacson wrote in a pre-sentencing letter to Judge Mark Wolf of the U.S. District Court in Boston, "but in the early-1980s, public officials who spoke on our behalf were frequently the target of scorn, derision and political attack by their colleagues, their constituents and the press."

Sal DiMasi, she told Judge Wolf, "was one of the few legislators in a leadership position willing to step up to the plate and advocate forcefully for the bill." The former House Speaker seemed to be especially attuned to the effects of discrimination, Isaacson came to believe, because of his experiences growing up "at a time when Italians in Boston were still the butt of jokes and ridicule."

For Judge Wolf, Isaacson recounted how DiMasi "was always willing, even eager, to help with legislation that increased affordable housing or supported programs for the poor and the needy" in the City of Boston -- "and not simply for those in his district, but statewide." DiMasi "could have limited his efforts only to those bills that affected his own legislative district," Isaacson noted. "Instead, he went beyond narrow parochial interests to assist with measures that helped the entire city, and most especially people in need, regardless of their address. He did not have to do that. He gained nothing from it. But he wanted to do the right thing."

Similarly, Isaacson said, DiMasi stood by the gay community in the mid-1980s, when the AIDS epidemic struck; voted in 1985 against a proposed ban on adoptions by gay parents; and fought hard to establish the right for persons of the same gender to marry in the mid-2000s. "He derived absolutely no personal benefit by working as tenaciously as he did," she wrote. "He used his political 'collateral' to help a community of strangers, not himself. He could have done significantly less and GLBTS would still have heralded him as a hero. One thing is very clear, we would not have retained the right to marry without Sal DiMasi."

Isaacson began her letter to Judge Wolf, who subsequently sentenced DiMasi to eight years in prison, by asserting the "portrait painted of Sal during his trial, as a legislator motivated by self-interest, varies markedly from my experiences with him," and ended by saying, "Sal was driven by a deep-seated caring and a fervent commitment to a kind of 'Tikkun Olam' -- to make the world a better place."

Last Wednesday, DiMasi entered a prison medical facility in Lexington, Kentucky. He probably won't see the outside for five-and-a-half or six years -- if he gets lucky. If, however, the kind of luck he had with Judge Wolf continues, DiMasi may never get out. He is 66 years old and has a history of heart ills. Eight years could be a death sentence for someone like him.

Is eight years too much for what DiMasi did? One can make that case, especially considering that DiMasi lost his reputation, savings and pension long before he lost his freedom. The government cannot make Sal DiMasi a more destitute or a more broken human being than he is today.

By repeatedly helping persons, organizations and causes far removed from his North End base, and by spending his political capital on unpopular causes and in battles that were not his own, DiMasi proved that he genuinely cared about others, that he had courage, and was not a selfish man. He deserved more compassion than he got in Judge Wolf's court. Better it would have been, in my opinion, for Wolf to sentence him to three years in prison, followed by five years working as a paralegal in an agency providing legal services to the indigent.

J.W. Carney, Jr., now a prominent Massachusetts defense attorney, encountered DiMasi in his (Carney's) early days as a public defender in Boston. Carney attested in a letter to Judge Wolf that DiMasi "was an excellent attorney, who always was well-prepared, knowledgeable about the facts and law of the case, and articulate in his presentations."

When Carney later became a prosecutor, he dealt with DiMasi lawyer-to-lawyer. "...his (DiMasi's) ethics were always of the highest order," Carney wrote. "My colleagues and I could accept his representations without question because they had been proven to be accurate in every instance."

Carney's letter for DiMasi tugs at the heart as it describes DiMasi's meetings with clients and family members in the hallways after court had adjourned. "It was clear," Carney said, that many of DiMasi's clients at that time "were indigent or close to it, and he was not representing them by court appointment."

Carney "often saw his (DiMasi's) clients and their families emotionally giving their thanks to him outside the courtroom after the resolution of a case," he wrote. "It was not unusual for the encounter to end with the family promising to pay Attorney DiMasi, and his replying in a warm way, 'Do what you can, don't worry about it.' "

Three years from now, the Commonwealth would be better served by DiMasi deploying his legal skills for the benefit of the poor of Boston, Springfield, New Bedford or Lawrence, as opposed to DiMasi going down, down, down in the mindless confines of a prison far from home.

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