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Corruption conviction is no bar to lobbying, ex-lawmaker tells Massachusetts high court

The appeal comes from a Democrat who served the Massachusetts House of Representatives for 30 years, the last five as speaker, before he was toppled by federal corruption charges.

BOSTON (CN) — Grappling with a state lobbying statute that seems to go easy on politicians convicted of accepting bribes, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court debated Wednesday whether they could write off the discrepancy as a drafting error.

Associate Justice Scott Kafker noted during oral arguments that the 2009 legislation specifically mentions state law violations, and it removed the secretary of the commonwealth’s discretion when it comes to blocking the registration of certain lobbyists. It was passed after a state senator who faced federal corruption charges pleaded guilty.

“The Legislature characterizes this as a reform — designing to increase protections against this type of lobbying by convicted officials — but it seems like they did the opposite,” said Kafker. "They’ve narrowed who’s covered to such an extent it’s actually providing much less protection than the law before.”

Participating by telephone, Kafker asked if all of the reforms simply amounted to a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.”

The challenge to the law has been led by Salvatore DiMasi, a Democratic who in 2011 became the third consecutive speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to be criminally convicted for crimes committed while in office. Prosecutors showed that DeMasi collected $65,000 over two years in exchange for working to direct state funding to a Canadian software company.

Briefing in the case said some of the work awarded to the company, a division of Cognos ULC, included a contract with the state Department of Education to aggregate its data. Its two contracts with the commonwealth totaled $17.5 million, according to a FBI press release.

While DiMasi was sentenced to eight years imprisonment, he served only five after he developed neck, prostate and tongue cancer, and a judge reduced his sentence.

Fast-forward to March 2019, and DiMasi sought once again to tread the halls of power, this time as a lobbyist. But four days after he filed a registration, the secretary of the commonwealth rejected the application, citing a law that barred him from engaging in lobbying for a decade following his conviction.

When DiMasi challenged the rejection of his lobbying registration, the trial court sided with him, saying the state law should be read narrowly: Because the statute discusses state convictions only, it said a federal corruption conviction does not prevent a former official busted by the feds from lurking in the statehouse lobby.

Assistant state Attorney General Julie Green argued Wednesday the law was written ambiguously, and that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court should adopt an expansive reading of it.

“The narrow reading tends to defeat the purpose of the statute by excluding a whole swath of crimes where there’s no evidence the legislature intended to exclude,” Green said.

Green did not agree with Kafker’s questions regarding whether the legislature wanted to protect corrupt officials, saying there was no basis for that conclusion but rather lawmakers sought to “penalize felonies that are related to the legislative process.”

DiMasi’s attorney Meredith Fierro said, in the last legislative session, Massachusetts lawmakers considered a bill that would have disqualified officials convicted of federal corruption offenses from going onto a career as a lobbyist. The lawmakers sent the bill to study, Fierro said.

“I think we know what that means. And that tells us all we need to know about the Legislature's intent in this regard,” she added.

Fierro said the Legislature made a policy judgement, one that removed the discretion the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth had in registering lobbyists.  

“What the secretary is really attempting to do here in this case is to reclaim discretion the Legislature took away by injecting ambiguity into an unambiguous statute,” Fierro said.

She ended by urging the panel to exercise judicial restraint regarding the policies set by the lawmakers.

In the meantime, as this question has matriculated through the commonwealth’s courts, more than a decade passed since DiMasi’s conviction. According to the secretary of the commonwealth’s website, DiMasi registered to become a lobbyist on Dec. 14, 2021.

It is unclear when the seven-member court will rule.

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