BOSTON (SHNS) – Secretary of State William Galvin misinterpreted Massachusetts law when he denied former House Speaker Sal DiMasi’s registration as a lobbyist in 2019, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday in a decision that may impact future lobbying efforts by individuals with federal corruption convictions.
The Supreme Judicial Court decided that a section of state law deeming anyone found guilty of public corruption charges ineligible to register as a lobbyist for 10 years is “unambiguous” in applying only to state convictions, not federal convictions as well.
Judges sided with DiMasi, a Democrat who led the House for more than four years before he was indicted and then found guilty on federal corruption and extortion charges, and affirmed a lower court’s ruling in his favor.
In a decision penned by Justice Serge Georges Jr., the court said Galvin — who oversees the state lobbying division — incorrectly rejected DiMasi’s registration as a Massachusetts lobbyist in 2019.
The law Galvin cited does not extend to federal convictions, even if the offenses in question might violate Massachusetts statute in a way that triggers an automatic lobbying ban, justices said in a ruling that could prompt lawmakers to revisit that section of state law.
“We conclude that the language of the disqualification provision is unambiguous, and that the Secretary’s interpretation contravenes the plain statutory language and the Legislature’s intent in enacting the provision,” Georges wrote in the opinion. “[The law] does not afford the Secretary discretion to consider what other offenses might require automatic disqualification even if the underlying conduct that resulted in a conviction could support a felony conviction pursuant to G. L. c. 3, 55, or 268A. Rather, the disqualification provision limits automatic disqualification to individuals who have been convicted of a felony set forth in G. L. c. 3, 55, or 268A.”
Lawmakers and Gov. Deval Patrick enacted the 10-year ban on lobbying by anyone convicted of a state felony as part of an ethics and campaign finance law in 2009, when both DiMasi’s case and corruption charges against Sen. Dianne Wilkerson shone a spotlight on Beacon Hill.
The SJC in its Thursday ruling pointed to the House’s debate in 2009 of the ethics law.
“While the House was considering the 2009 lobbying law, and after receiving a public comment to the same effect, a member of the House proposed legislation that automatically would have disqualified all felons from registering as lobbyists, regardless of the jurisdiction of their felony convictions,” the SJC wrote in its decision Thursday. “Later, during floor debates, the same language was reintroduced as an amendment to the draft 2009 lobbying law, and immediately was tabled. Subsequently, a ‘redrafted’ version of the amendment was introduced that limited automatic disqualifications to felony convictions under [state law] … This constrained version of the original provision was adopted and enacted.”
The court’s decision does not immediately alter the landscape for DiMasi, who has been working as a lobbyist since shortly after a Superior Court judge ruled in July 2020 that Galvin was wrong to reject the former speaker’s application.
The calendar had also already rendered an SJC ruling moot, at least as it applies to DiMasi: he was convicted of federal conspiracy, fraud and extortion charges in 2011, so even if those triggered an automatic decade-long ban from lobbying, the prohibition would have lifted in 2021.
But the SJC said when it plucked the case from the Appeals Court that it still saw value in deciding the limits of the lobbying ban, writing at the time that the “legal issue is of great public importance and is likely to recur.”
DiMasi’s attorney, Meredith Fierro, said the former speaker’s team has not decided whether to seek damages to cover his legal costs. Fierro said if DiMasi opts to take additional action, he would only pursue attorney fees and not further payment covering potential wages he did not earn while his lobbying registration was denied.
“At its core, this case is about statutory interpretation,” Fierro said in a statement. “We are pleased that the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed our view that the statute is clear and unambiguous.”
While Galvin said he would “abide by the decision of the court,” he also voiced frustration about the ruling, arguing that it “renders the statute ridiculous.”
“It sets a bad precedent,” Galvin said in an interview. “You cannot be a firefighter if you’ve been convicted of arson. Now, I guess, if you’re a federal arsonist, you can be a firefighter.”
Galvin said he plans to file legislation to “expand” the automatic lobbying disqualification trigger to federal offenses.
“There never was a dispute about the conduct,” he said. “The question was: did you have to get an exact conviction on the statute at the state level, or if you got the same conduct, the same set of facts that would have warranted a state conviction at the federal level, where he was federally convicted, does that count?”
“This is not about DiMasi. It’s not, and it hasn’t been for some time,” Galvin added.
Early in their political careers, both men served in the House’s Boston delegation — Galvin from Brighton, DiMasi from across town in the North End — for an overlapping period of about 12 years.
DiMasi, who was one of four former speakers in attendance in the House chamber when representatives selected Ron Mariano for another term as speaker on Wednesday, served five years in prison and secured compassionate medical release in 2016.
Records published on Galvin’s public lobbying database indicate DiMasi began lobbying work in the second half of 2020. Between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2022, he earned $125,950 from clients including the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, North End Community Health Committee Inc., Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center Inc. and the Montachusett Veterans Outreach Center.