When one Massachusetts Speaker of the House gets indicted, it's a local story. When the feds indict three in a row, people outside of New England begin to take notice.
Salvatore DiMasi, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives until his resignation in January, faces twenty years in prison for allegedly taking $57,000 in kickbacks in an elaborate plot that steered much-sought-after government contracts to software company Cognos. "It's about time we got business like this," DiMasi reportedly told an aide.
The federal indictment filed on June 2 alleges, "It was the purpose and object of the conspiracy to enrich its members by improperly using the power, authority, and influence of DiMasi as Speaker of the House to enable Cognos to obtain multi-million dollar software procurements from agencies of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
If convicted, DiMasi will be proven not just corrupt but incredibly stupid -- his alleged fees for delivering $20 million to Cognos amount to pennies on the dollar. Perhaps this is a function of supply and demand. In Massachusetts, politicians come cheap. Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, caught on candid camera allegedly stuffing $1,000 into her bra, and current Boston City Councilman Chuck Turner, caught on candid camera allegedly taking a $1,000 payoff, currently face federal corruption charges that they attempted to use their elected offices to obtain a six-figure liquor license for a club called, appropriately enough, Déjà Vu.
It's not only the corruption and stupidity that galls, but the conceit. Massachusetts voters, like Yogi Berra, are experiencing déjà vu all over again. DiMasi's predecessor, Speaker Obstruction of Justice, pled guilty to a federal felony just two years ago, and his predecessor, Speaker Felony Tax Evasion, pled guilty to ethics and tax illegalities in 1996 and then resigned his elected office. Sensing a pattern, Speaker Kickback's successor, longtime ally Robert DeLeo -- nickname TBA -- has distanced himself from the scandal. "He is not a subject, target, or person of interest," DeLeo's lawyer insists. "People from his office produced records [for the feds]. He was never in front of the grand jury."
When Massachusetts looks in the mirror, it sees Minnesota or Nebraska. When everybody else looks at Massachusetts, they see Louisiana or Illinois. A cognitive dissonance persists in which Bay State voters talk good government but continually elect rogues. Though Gerrymandering, "Vote Often and Early for James Michael Curley," and Kennedys stealing a presidential election in Illinois are all part of the local lore, Bay Staters think this is history. It's not, even if their corruption problem has less to do with the ghosts of politics past than with the realities of politics present.
So what's the matter with Massachusetts?
Massachusetts is a one-party state. Its House delegation has been without a Republican for over a decade and its Senate delegation has been all Democrat for over three decades. The Democrats have held complete control of the state legislature for a half century. The last Republican presidential candidate to obtain at least 40 percent of the vote was George H.W. Bush when he ran against not-so-favorite-son Michael Dukakis in 1988. With Democratic officeholders knowing that even Bernie Madoff would best a Republican on Election Day, a few Democrats, unsurprisingly, behave like Bernie Madoff. The check on political shenanigans that competitive elections bestow upon other states just isn't present in Massachusetts.
Not only are disincentives to corruption virtually non-existent on Election Day, they are hard to find in the local criminal justice system as well. Whether one speaks of the three disgraced ex-speakers, or the Boston pol recently caught on camera allegedly stuffing a bribe in her bra, those exposing and prosecuting dishonest government in Massachusetts generally have been the feds. The one-party state has also bequeathed something that the shady businessmen greasing the palms of politicians love: big government. Like Willie Sutton who robbed banks because that is where the money is kept, the companies skimming from the public trough generally feed where the trough overflows. Put another way, there is a reason why Taxachusetts, rather than Live Free or Die New Hampshire, has witnessed a revolving door of criminal speakers.
"We now have had three speakers in a row that have left in shame: [Charlie] Flaherty, [Tom] Finneran, and now DiMasi," Rob Willington, executive director of MassConservatives, points out. "The Republicans can now travel Massachusetts with the message of 'Three Strikes and You're Out' to the voters making the case for a stronger two-party system in the Commonwealth." Alas, Willington explains, the "love my legislator, hate my legislature" mentality exerts a strong pull in the Bay State.
"Power tends to corrupt," Lord Acton taught, "and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Anyone looking for a demonstration of Action's axiom need only look to Massachusetts.
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