A toxic view of public life

Issue October 2011 By Richard P. Campbell

"A dream corrupted." That is how Chief Judge Mark Wolf of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts described the tragic fall of the former first Italian-American speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Salvatore DiMasi.

The Boston Globe quoted Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office, as stating: "Public corruption is a very significant crime, which significantly erodes the public's trust in honest and effective government." (Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!) Judge Wolf called DiMasi's conduct "a most serious crime" and offered the view that the case against him "demonstrated the occurrence of corruption in state government."

Leaving aside the sadness and/or disgust that hangs over all members of the bar with the criminal conviction of one of our own, we should be asking why and how a brilliant, effective and successful lawyer/politician would ever trod down the path of criminality. Why throw away everything one has worked decades to achieve? And why do it for $65,000?

One answer to these questions may repose in the unwillingness of our citizens to fund adequately our political and judicial systems. We want full-service government -- police, fire, public transportation, well-maintained highways, public parks and beaches, a clean environment and an ordered society. But, we want it all on the cheap. We just do not want to pay for it.

DiMasi, in my view, found himself between a rock and a hard place. He occupied one of the most visible and demanding public offices in the commonwealth, one that kept him on the job seven days a week for 52 weeks of the year. According to testimony at his trial, DiMasi earned more than $200,000 as a practicing lawyer and legislator before becoming speaker. However, on assuming the role as speaker of the House, he could not conceivably practice law any longer. So his only source of revenue was his salary as a public servant -- $96,000 per year. While some may consider $96,000 a handsome salary, it supports at best a moderate lifestyle living in a high-priced city like Boston.

We cannot know with certainty the full reach of the speaker's motivation, but it is appropriate in hindsight for us to look hard at minimalist salaries paid to public servants when so much is required of them.

In fact, inadequate salaries coupled with atrocious working conditions are driving scores of judicial officers from the bench. It seems common now for Superior Court judges to leave the bench early (prior to age 70). Similarly, the Probate and Family Court is poised for a dramatic loss of judges in the upcoming year.

Why? What happened to the notion that a judicial appointment is the quintessential capstone to a legal career? In my view, the answer again is the unwillingness of the people to fund properly a first-rate judicial system.

The high cost of living does not magically disappear when one holds public office. Just ask Sal DiMasi. Financial commitments for housing, taxes, tuitions and the like are not put on hold while public servants work for us.

With tuition, room and board at private universities exceeding $50,000 per year, how does a judge making $130,000 put kids through college? Then, add real estate taxes of $15,000 (or more) for a house in a leafy suburb purchased while still in private practice. Simple math makes for an ugly picture. For example, if a judge takes home 65 percent of her salary after taxes, she would be left with $84,500 of disposable income. With one child in a private university and real estate taxes as stated above, she would have less than $20,000 of remaining funds to make it through the year.

Public service is, of course, a calling. And many experienced and successful lawyers take to the bench fully aware of the financial hurdles ahead of them. Perhaps, some know as well that their "starting" salaries inexorably decline in real dollars with each passing year as the public refuses to make adjustments to meet ever-increasing costs of living in the commonwealth while concomitantly allowing years to pass without base salary increases. A few might also recognize that draconian budget cuts for the judiciary over the past few years markedly diminish the quality of public service they aspire to provide.

Like a house built on a shoddy foundation, an underfunded judiciary will erode and eventually collapse. DiMasi's corruption (for incredibly short money) is not sui generis. It is not unique to him, or to speakers of the House of Representatives, or to elected officials generally. Poorly compensated and overworked people can and will crack under extreme financial pressure. Fortunately, most public servants will simply abandon their service to the commonwealth and take up employment in the private sector. Some, however, may tread the same path that cost DiMasi his career, freedom and reputation.

In The Fall of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America's Most Powerful Trial Lawyer, Curtis Wilkie vividly depicts the intricate web of corruption among Mississippi trial lawyers, elected officials, clerks and judges fueled by litigation proceeds. Like the criminal case against DiMasi, federal prosecutors and judges in Mississippi brought those individuals to the bar of justice, resulting in long prison sentences. Judge Wolf ended the DiMasi case with the observation that "the system does work, and something can be done about corruption." What Judge Wolf did not say, however, is that financial hardship and stressful work conditions are a toxic brew that can lead otherwise good people to make serious mistakes.

Proper funding of the judiciary and adequate salaries for our judicial officers are essential tools in making the system work without the need for federal prosecutions.