City Journal: Courting the Spotlight

Barefaced lies? Naked ambition? A field guide to this month’s hotly anticipated federal trial for former House Speaker Tom Finneran.

Love him or hate him, Tom Finneran commands attention. For years it was for the strong-arm tactics the former House speaker, a Mattapan Democrat, used in running Beacon Hill. But now it’s a federal trial for lying under oath that puts the ex-pol in the spotlight. His rivals call it comeuppance for the pugnacious blusterer; others say it’s a wild attack, motivated by politics. Before the first gavel, CJ breaks it down.

THE CASE: The indictment stems from a 2003 trial over a legislative redistricting plan. In that case, legendary control freak Finneran testified he wasn’t closely involved in an effort to redraw some districts. Federal judges tossed out the redistricting scheme—and called foul on Finneran’s claim that he was only peripherally involved. Perjury ain’t easy to prove, though: Prosecutors have to show Finneran was clearly lying, and that the lie mattered. Jurors can expect a Clintonian dissection of what the word “involved” means.

THE DEFENDANT: King Tom was undeniably powerful—others referred to him as the “real governor”—before he stepped down in 2004 after eight years as speaker. He was under federal investigation at the time, but that didn’t hurt his job prospects any. He’s since been earning more than half a million dollars a year running the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. He’d likely have to give up the job—not to mention his penchant for backyard gardening—if he gets all of what he’s facing: 21 months behind bars.

THE PROSECUTION: U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, a Republican, served in the State House with Finneran. By indicting the powerful Democrat, the bulldog prosecutor stands to brighten his own star. He is mentioned as a contender to run for U.S. senator in two years, or governor in four. But if Finneran gets off, Sullivan could be flayed for overreaching. It’ll be up to his deputies, Assistant U.S. Attorneys John McNeil and S. Theodore Merritt, to make the government’s case—and safeguard their boss’s political future.

THE DEFENSE TEAM: Finneran, himself a lawyer, has retained his longtime legal partner, Tom Drechsler, along with prominent attorney Richard Egbert. Finneran joins a long roster of notable officials Egbert has represented, including former Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci and former Superior Court Judge Maria Lopez. Egbert’s affinity for controversial clients has him splitting time these days: He’s also defending a Big Dig firm manager charged with supplying substandard concrete.

THE JUDGE: U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns once fancied becoming FBI director. Instead, the former prosecutor got appointed to the federal bench by old pal Bill Clinton, whom he’d met while they were Rhodes Scholars. The Harvard Law grad remains socially connected to legal heavies like Laurence Tribe and his plugged-in wife, Carolyn. But don’t expect to get to know Stearns beyond courtroom sketches: Cameras are a no-no in federal court.

THE MEDIA: In 2005, Finneran told the media he didn’t plan to lose sleep over his legal woes—and indeed, they haven’t turned him into a shrinking violet. This past fall he made the television rounds, offering campaign analysis and perhaps prepping for his close-up to come this month. Expect the media to be gentle, though: Most reporters like Finneran. And he may be soon joining them. The tough talker is said to be up for his own WRKO-AM show—if the trial’s outcome doesn’t complicate his schedule.

UPDATE: On Friday, Jan. 5, Tom Finneran pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice in federal court. U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns sentenced Finneran to 18 months of unsupervised probation and ordered him to pay a $25,000 fine.