Two black politicians were just sentenced to prison for taking bribes. If Sal DiMasi convicted, will he get the same?
Sal DiMasi, who is scheduled to stand trial on April 25 for alleged wire and mail fraud, extortion, and conspiracy, is the state’s third speaker of the House in the past 15 years to face federal charges. The first two, Tom Finneran and Charles Flaherty, were both found guilty, but never served a day.
In contrast, former State Senator Dianne Wilkerson and City Councilor Chuck Turner, both African American, were recently given long prison sentences after being convicted of bribery. The judge in their cases said he wanted to send a message that political corruption has consequences. So what happens if DiMasi — who, like his fellow former speakers, is white—is found guilty?
DiMasi is accused of profiting far more off his office than Wilkerson or Turner ever did. Prosecutors say he received payments totaling $57,000 to steer huge contracts to the software company Cognos. Turner got three years after fighting charges that he took a $1,000 bribe. Wilkerson pleaded guilty to accepting $23,500 in payments and received three and a half years. So if DiMasi is convicted, does he get the slap on the wrist or the harsh justice?
Complicating the question is the fact that the judges are different: The black pols were tried before Judge Douglas Woodlock, while DiMasi’s drawn Mark Wolf. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz says we can expect fairness.
“Judge Wolf is very demanding, very tough on the government,” Dershowitz says.
Regardless, people will have their antennae up. Barbara Lewis, director of UMass Boston’s Trotter Institute for black cultural studies, says Wilkerson and Turner weren’t treated as well as DiMasi was from the start. “My sense is that [they] were confronted with a much more violent grilling, perhaps even a demon hunt—much more so than DiMasi,” Lewis says.
Reverend Jeffrey Brown, executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, puts it more bluntly: “There can’t be two standards in the city or in the state when it comes to issues of political corruption.”