BOSTON — Former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, once arguably the most powerful man in Massachusetts, was hit yesterday with an eight-year jail sentence for his conviction on charges that he sold his office for personal gain, the harshest punishment ever doled out in a Massachusetts public corruption case.
If he serves his full sentence, DiMasi, 66, will emerge from prison when he is 74 years old. He was also ordered to forfeit $65,000, the amount of bribes he allegedly received in a long-running conspiracy.
Prosecutors had recommended a 12-year sentence for DiMasi, and his attorney suggested three years.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf said DiMasi may self-report to prison in six to eight weeks. He said the sentence will be carried out at a correctional facility at Devens and will be followed by two years of supervised release.
The judge said he factored DiMasi's "good works" as a legislator and family man when crafting his sentence but in delivering it, Wolf ripped DiMasi for risking himself, his family and the causes he believes in for quick cash from a software firm.
"Corruption has very real victims in general and in this case," Wolf said. "Mr. DiMasi sold out and betrayed many of the people who wrote lovely letters on his behalf. Corruption also disparages honest legislators."
Wolf worried that DiMasi's scheme would discourage "honest and able people" from running for office and "betrays the promise of America to people who take great risk to come to our country lawfully."
Wolf also quoted Louis Brandeis, who addressed Boston businessmen in 1903 after Mayor James Michael Curley was convicted of fraud: "The waste and theft of public monies that result from having such men in office is bad enough, but one hundred times worse is the demoralization of people which results."
DiMasi was convicted in June on charges that he abused his power to steer a pair of state contracts - a $4.5 million deal in 2006 and a $13 million deal in 2007 - to Cognos Corp., a Canadian company, in exchange for monthly $5,000 kickbacks funneled through a law associate. According to prosecutors, DiMasi began conspiring shortly after he took the speakership in 2004 and experienced a decline in income from his law practice.
Veteran Beacon Hill lobbyist Richard McDonough, also 66, was convicted in the scheme, as well. Wolf sentenced McDonough — once a powerful agent for Anheuser-Busch, Suffolk Downs and other prominent Massachusetts interests — to seven years in prison.
DiMasi and McDonough were convicted of conspiracy, two counts of honest services mail fraud and three counts of honest services wire fraud. DiMasi was also convicted of a count of extortion. Most of the charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
A third co-defendant, DiMasi's longtime financial adviser Richard Vitale, was acquitted of all charges against him. A fourth, Cognos salesman Joseph Lally, pleaded guilty to the scheme in March and testified against his former conspirators.
Although DiMasi is the third consecutive speaker convicted of a felony, he is the first to receive a prison sentence. His predecessor Thomas Finneran pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and Finneran's predecessor Charles Flaherty pleaded guilty to tax evasion.
Beacon Hill has been grappling with fallout from DiMasi's conviction since it was delivered in June. But the sentencing — less than three years after his colleagues overwhelmingly re-elected him as the leader of the House, amid mounting evidence that he was under fire — casts an unwelcome backdrop as lawmakers begin to consider a fiercely lobbied-over proposal on expanded gambling, a plan DiMasi once scuttled.
State Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, who was an ardent and loyal supporter of DiMasi, said yesterday that he is disappointed by DiMasi's actions, but that he still considers the former speaker a friend.
"He was my friend, he is my friend, he made some bad mistakes, and he's paying a very, very heavy price," Costello said. "I'm very disappointed, but you can be disappointed in your friends. I feel very bad for him and his family, but the result isn't something that's unexpected."
DiMasi had serious charges against him, Costello added, and he had his day in court. It became clear that if he was convicted, there were going to "very serious consequences," he said.
"I think we saw those consequences today," he added. "It's a very stiff sentence."
Costello first met DiMasi as a young teenager when DiMasi and Costello's father, Nicholas, were elected to the Legislature together in 1978. He has said that he sought DiMasi's advice over the years on decisions, such as whether he should attend law school and whether he should run for a House seat.
DiMasi appointed Costello to a post as chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.
Costello said he worked side-by-side with DiMasi on "very important causes" from gay marriage to universal health care, just in the six years he served with him. DiMasi had a lengthy career that preceded him, he added.
"To see it all come crashing down the way it did, it's disappointing, but it's also difficult to see someone go through that, on a personal level."
Throughout his career, Costello said, he's watched "good people make major mistakes."
"Clearly, the speaker's actions fall into that category," he said. "Ninety-five percent of his career was spent doing very good things."
Now, DiMasi will be remembered as the speaker who was indicted and convicted on corruption charges, Costello said.
Costello said he worries about how such cases impact the public's involvement in public service.
"I think it's difficult enough to be a public official without this type of behavior," he said. "This only adds to the difficulty. It makes a lot of people pause who may otherwise get into public service. It impacts the way they perceive us."
DiMasi's legacy as a lawmaker, now tarnished by his conviction, included a drive to require all Massachusetts residents to obtain health insurance — a law that became the model for President Obama's federal health reform law. He also championed gay marriage, aggressively working to scuttle a constitutional amendment to ban it.
His tenure included legislative efforts to set long-term carbon emission restrictions, incentivize the development of renewable energy, strengthen laws aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect, stiffening punishments for sexual predators of children, and advancing stem-cell research in Massachusetts. He also memorably worked to kill an effort by Gov. Deval Patrick to bring three resort casinos to Massachusetts, a proposal that has since been revived and seems headed toward passage.