Articles Posted in Political Corruption

Now that the jury in the Massachusetts Probation Department corruption trial has returned its verdict, some comment is needed concerning Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Beforehand, some brief background on this case: The Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office brought this case alleging that John O’Brien, former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner, constructed a scheme with legislators – though not one legislator out of 200 was ever charged – whereby in exchange for hiring legislators’ friends, the Legislature would increase state funding and management powers to O’Brien. As said, no individual legislators were ever formally charged, but the federal prosecutors went out of their way to leak to the media that on the Legislature’s end, House Speaker Robert DeLeo was complicit in the alleged operation.

The Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office should be ashamed of the manner in which they have sullied the name of Robert DeLeo. Without ever charging him, prosecutors hoped to – and sadly have probably succeeded in – attaching DeLeo’s name to these convictions forever. Many in the media were only too willing to bite on this hook baited by the U.S. Attorney – shamefully so. I also noted too few letters to the editor supporting him, whether in The Boston Globe or The Boston Herald. How unfortunate.

As I write this post tonight, I’m thinking about shame and loss.

I’m writing about former Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi’s sentencing today in federal court in Boston. About four days ago earlier this week, I communicated with several Boston media reporters, opining my professional opinion, as a Boston Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, of how many years that DiMasi would be sentenced to. My prediction as of September 5? Eight years. The sentence handed down today by U.S. Judge Mark Wolf? Eight years.

While I felt all along that my instincts were accurate, I was saddened that I had to make them at all. I was saddened that DiMasi brought himself to this position. It was a shame that someone who has by many, many accounts done a great deal of good over thirty years of public service, would come to this kind of an end. It was a shame that a member of the bar, an esteemed criminal defense attorney, had been brought to such disgrace. And it was a shame that the public’s trust in elected officials has been brought ever lower. As to loss, the legislature lost a talented member and leader; Mr. DiMasi has lost his name, his freedom for several years, and his lifetime state pension of approximately $60,000 per year. He is financially broke, in debt, and (to quote his own words at his sentencing hearing,) “virtually unemployable.” And perhaps worst of all, his family, especially his wife Debbie who is battling breast cancer, has lost him, for a long time.

Here in Boston legal circles and in the Boston media, the past six weeks have been quite abuzz over the public corruption trial of former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore F. “Sal” DiMasi and his two co-defendants, Richard Vitale and Richard McDonough. DiMasi, Vitale, McDonough, and former Cognos salesman Joseph Lally were all indicted by the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office on public corruption charges almost two years ago, for alleged influence-peddling and corruption in the awarding of approximately $20 million in software contracts by the state to a company then known as Cognos. The company has since been bought by IBM.

In the past month, the government spent almost three weeks putting on 24 prosecution witnesses against DiMasi and his two co-defendants. Those witnesses included former cabinet secretaries, Dimasi’s own former press spokesperson, DiMasi’s own personal assistant, and even governor Deval Patrick. From the perspective of a Boston Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, it was a withering experience. DiMasi’s lawyers did the best they could on cross-examination to weaken this testimony. After the government rested its case, DiMasi’s defense put on only three witnesses. On more than one occasion during the course of this trial, I have been asked by various media outlets in Boston to comment on this fact.

In some of those comments, I stated that the fact that DiMasi’s defense offered only three (fairly weak) witnesses, after the prosecution spent in excess of three weeks putting on 24 witnesses against him – including the Governor, former cabinet secretaries, members of DiMasi’s own legislative staff and DiMasi’s own law associate – did “not bode well” for DiMasi. I believe that comment reflected the reality of this situation, I stand by the comment, and I believe that if I said otherwise, I wouldn’t be a very good Dedham Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer. Regardless, that does not mean that DiMasi or his co-defendants are guilty. I’ve stated previously to reporters and will say here again: DiMasi and his co-defendants are presumed to be not guilty, prior to a jury delivering any verdict. It is the government’s burden to prove that these defendants are guilty of the crimes they are accused of – not the other way around. No, this trial has not gone well so far for these defendants, in my professional view. But that does not mean that all is lost.

From a total of over 80 potential jurors, sixteen have advanced to the final round of jury selection, as of Friday, April 29 2011, in the corruption trial of former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.

The sixteen, however, isn’t enough. U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf must select an additional 20 jurors before the pool is finally narrowed down to the 16 people who will actually hear the case. 12 of those 16 will act as primary jurors, and 4 will serve as alternates in the event that one or more jurors are excused or dismissed for some unforeseen reason. Wolf has met personally with 37 members of the jury pool, to discuss their responses to 43 separate written questions that have been posed to each of them. The questions are designed to screen out biases, possible prejudices and/or pre-conceived opinions about the defendants or the case. Jurors were asked their opinions about lobbyists, accountants, Gov. Deval Patrick and other elected officials, who may be called as witnesses. Among the jurors who were dismissed was a woman who said she held a “jaded opinion” of elected officials, and a man who disobeyed the judge’s instructions not to research the case online, as well as another man who was overheard by a potential juror as saying “all politicians are guilty of something.”

DiMasi, accountant Richard Vitale and lobbyist Richard McDonough are accused of political corruption charges in allegedly steering two state contracts worth $17.5 million to the Burlington software company Cognos, in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in hidden payments. DiMasi is accused of collecting $65,000 in kickbacks. Vitale allegedly received $600,000, and authorities said McDonough got $300,000. As a Boston criminal defense lawyer, I have to say I’m quite surprised at DiMasi’s apparent refusal to this point, to accept a possible plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. Note: I emphasize “apparent” refusal, as I don’t know whether prosecutors have, in fact, offered any plea deal to DiMasi – but it’s not at all uncommon that such possibilities would be pursued between prosecutors and defense counsel, prior to trial. I would find it odd if I learned that prosecutors never proffered any kind of a plea deal in this case, at all. Also, I don’t know whether DiMasi’s attorney has advised his client to consider any plea if one was actually offered, or not. And most important, if DiMasi’s lawyer had recommended such an option, DiMasi is the one who would make the final call on that, as the client is the person who makes these final decisions, not the attorney. Hence, as this case appears headed for trial as of this writing, I have to assume one of three things: 1) The U.S. Attorney did not offer any kind of plea deal; 2) They did proffer such a deal, but DiMasi’s attorney advised his client against the deal and DiMasi agreed with his attorney’s advice; or 3) Prosecutors offered a deal, DiMasi’s attorney recommended he take it, and DiMasi refused his attorney’s advice. There aren’t many other answers to explain why DiMasi is barreling toward a jury trial here.

I’ve been a trial lawyer for quite some time now. I’ve seen my share of clients who are outright innocent; guilty of a crime but legally “not guilty” due to a legal issue or procedural defect; and then those that are outright guilty. You can’t try cases from both the prosecution as well as the defense table, as I have, and not develop a keen sense of who falls into which of these categories. The skill comes with the territory.

Thus it is with this skill that I comment today on the long, strange trip of Boston city councilor Chuck Turner. The hard-to-miss Mr. Turner seems, like Diane Wilkerson, (the disgraced former state senator who pled guilty earlier this year to several federal corruption charges,) comprised of an arrogance that defies description. (Another hard-to-miss personage, you will recall Dianne Wilkerson as she belonging to the “publicly-stuffing-illegal-cash-bribes-into-her brassiere-in-a-restaurant, then-denying- it” category of arrogance. Turner was investigated by the Boston office of the FBI along with Wilkerson, as part of an undercover FBI probe into political corruption in Boston. He is now on trial in U. S. District Court in Boston, charged with extortion and counts of political corruption.

Despite videotape evidence showing a Boston businessman (Ronald Wilburn,) handing to Turner what appears to almost every reasonable observer to be a cash bribe (offered in exchange for quick approval of a city liquor license,) and despite testimony from Wilburn that he gave Turner that money as a bribe for that license, Turner has for almost two years steadfastly denied he ever took a bribe from Wilburn. To assure full disclosure, it should be noted that Wilburn was cooperating with the FBI, and was paid compensation by the FBI as part of this investigation. It should also be noted that the practice of compensating witnesses in a federal investigation is entirely legal, and has been done in several previous cases. Regardless of this arrangement being legal, as a criminal defense attorney, I don’t think it’s smart at all, as it just hands the defense a basis upon which to attack the credibility of such a witness. But that doesn’t remove the fact that Turner is on tape, and is recorded accepting cash in-hand in a tacit exchange for a liquor license.

Friday the 13th proved to be definitely not a good day for former Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran. The Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers (BBO) formally issued its long-awaited decision today, regarding the former Speaker’s future ability to practice law in Massachusetts.

The 12-member board, eight of whom are lawyers, recommended complete disbarment. Only one board member voted to impose a lesser sanction, the two-year suspension previously recommended by the board. That vote was cast by Erik Lund, who wrote that “The circumstances in which Mr. Finneran’s felonious conduct occurred should lead to a lesser sanction than that of disbarment.”

As I blogged on previously, Finneran’s license to practice was suspended for two years in 2007 after he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice by giving false testimony in a federal lawsuit over his role in a 2002 legislative redistricting plan that diminished minority voting clout. This disbarment recommendation is the result of Finneran’s decision to appeal that Board’s two-year suspension recommendation. Contesting his appeal, the Board’s Office of Bar Counsel, which prosecutes attorney misconduct cases, responded by recommending his complete disbarment, and they won the day. Separately, in December 2008, Finneran also requested that President Bush issue him a pardon before Bush left office. Bush declined to act on Finneran’s application. As I wrote of previously, Finneran doubtless hoped that a Presidential pardon would elevate his chances in his appeal of the Board’s previous two-year suspension. No dice.

In my previous post, I commented on former Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran’s lobbying efforts to secure a last-minute presidential pardon for his guilty plea two years ago to federal obstruction of justice charges. On his way out of the White House door yesterday, former President George W. Bush declined to grant Finneran that presidential pardon. Bush gave no reason for his inaction. Some legal and political observers were surprised, given the lobbying connections Finneran recruited in this effort, notably four former Massachusetts Governors, including former governor Paul Cellucci, who has close ties to the Bush family. In their joint letter to Bush, the four former governors wrote that Finneran has been punished enough, and that he has “suffered daily taunts and ridicule from those who feel every elected official is a “common thief.”

Whether our former governors wished to acknowledge it or not, those “daily taunts” come from none other than Finneran’s own colleague at radio talk show station WRKO-AM 680, Howie Carr. Carr is a well-known critic of State House operations and politicians in general, but many observers, including myself, think that Carr’s unrelenting broadcast and published criticism of Finneran may be a ratings ploy to generate more attention and listenership to the station. Regardless, Finneran now looks even worse than he did before this pardon effort. In a piece the Boston Globe was preparing on this story, Finneran reportedly did not return calls from the Globe seeking a comment.

I’m not surprised that Bush declined to grant the petition. Leaving the Oval Office with one of the lowest approval ratings of any President in modern U.S. history, the last thing Bush needed was more criticism in granting a pardon to someone who hadn’t even met the five-year post-conviction waiting requirement, before being eligible to apply for a presidential pardon. As I reported previously, next on Finneran’s to-do list is getting his license to practice law reinstated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Finneran had a hearing on Monday January 20 2009 before the Board of Bar Overseers, the state agency that regulates the legal profession in Massachusetts. Meeting behind closed doors, the Board heard competing arguments on its own previous recommendation that Finneran’s license to practice be suspended for two years. That suspension began in January 2007. Opposing the Board’s two year suspension recommendation is the agency’s own Bar Counsel: That person has recommended complete disbarment.

Like so many of his predecessors in the office of the Massachusetts House Speaker, former Representative Tom Finneran left the office in disgrace, convicted of obstruction of justice in 2007.

The purpose of this post is not to report this news, as it’s now a few days old, but to probe the question: Should Finneran receive a pardon from Bush? If yes, why? If not, why not?

Finneran was convicted for obstruction of justice during a probe of a state effort to re-draw state legislative districts. Allegations of racial bias surfaced in the re-drawing of key state legislative maps. Some people claimed that Finneran took an active part in trying to redraw the legislative districts in a manner that would have underrepresented minority districts in the state legislature. After insisting on his innocence for some time, he later pled guilty to lying under oath and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to 18 months’ unsupervised probation and $25,000 in fines. In addition, his license to practice law was suspended, he was denied a state pension, and he was forced to resign his then very lucrative job as president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. After leaving the Speaker’s office in disgrace, Finneran landed his current job as a talk show host on WRKO-AM 680 in Boston.

A cornerstone of American criminal law is that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. That’s a critical protection within our criminal justice system, and it distinguishes us from the systems that some other countries use. Notwithstanding this precept, it seems that some people, no matter how many times they see the guilty fall, think they can act with impunity to break all kinds of different laws. In my experience as a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney and legal commentator, this is most commonly seen in the areas of organized crime and politics (which some observers would say are not that far removed from each other).

In Massachusetts, we have once again seen the envelope of brazenness pushed to the limit, with the arrest and arraignment earlier this week of state senator Dianne Wilkerson, of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Sen. Wilkerson was charged with 23 separate counts of federal bribery charges, representing the culmination of an 18-month plus undercover investigation by FBI and federal law enforcement authorities. Federal authorities received information from an undercover informant in 2007 that Sen. Wilkerson was accepting bribes from business interests seeking favorable approval for a range of permit applications, including liquor licenses and real estate development approvals, from state and city officials.

What makes the charges against Sen. Wilkerson so challenging to the concept that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, is the fact that FBI agents, posing as businessmen, wore concealed video cameras and microphones in their meetings and “dealings” with Sen. Wilkerson, and what is seen on these videos makes “brazen” seem mild by comparison. Sen. Wilkerson is seen on tape taking thousands of dollars at a time in cash bribes, in hand-to-hand delivery – at one point actually stuffing fistfuls of cash under her sweater, into her bra. Despite this overwhelming evidence in the form of video and audio tape, and informants ready to testify against her as well, Sen. Wilkerson insists that she is innocent of these charges.