Paul Steven Stone: The Mass. speaker saga

CAMBRIDGESo here’s the question:  Does the position of speaker of the Massachusetts House invite corruption or does it merely attract corrupt politicians?

Or put another way: would former speakers and convicted felons Charles Flaherty, Thomas Finneran and Salvatore DiMasi have put their careers and reputations on the line, risking prison and disbarment, had they not been inebriated on the hubris of Absolute Power that comes with the speaker’s job?

As  Lord Acton's saying goes: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely''!

And now, over the last few weeks, we have witnessed our current speaker, Robert DeLeo, appearing as a shadow figure, or unindicted co-conspirator, in the corruption trial of the cabal formerly in charge of that criminal enterprise known as the Massachusetts Probation Department.

In addition to helping his godson become the youngest acting chief probation officer in the commonwealth’s history, Speaker DeLeo was cited by prosecutors for allegedly using the promise of lucrative patronage jobs to help win the speakership in a tight race with Norwood Rep. John Rogers.

Not surprisingly, many of DeLeo’s colleagues and leadership team immediately stepped up to defend the speaker and denounce federal prosecutors. Also no surprise, not a single legislator who voted for DeLeo as speaker after receiving access to Probation Department jobs, saw those jobs as a quid pro quo for their vote. Without any question, they would have voted for DeLeo as speaker in any case. That they’d been given Probation jobs for their friends, relatives and supporters played no role whatsoever.

I believe them. But then again I also believe in Santa Claus and an unbiased U.S. Supreme Court.

Of course, if there’s a legislator dumb enough to admit that he or she sold his vote, according to Massachusetts custom they’d be impeached on the grounds of criminal stupidity rather than for any ethical lapse.

That legislators are so quick and vocal in defending DeLeo merely provides further evidence of the power and privilege accrued to the House speaker. Whether you have legislative goals or a leadership position (and salary) to protect, none of that will be possible without the blessing, support, or good opinion, of the speaker. Those shouting loudest in DeLeo’s support can expect to receive their just rewards in the old familiar ways of Massachusetts politics. Perhaps no longer with jobs for unemployed relatives, but you can bet there’ll be something under the House Xmas tree with their name on the box.

Of course, those defending DeLeo the loudest are probably the same legislators who stood up in 2011 to give a rousing round of applause to visiting former Speakers Flaherty, Finneran and DiMasi.

Apparently, in Massachusetts politics, nothing deserves a standing ovation like heaping shame upon your office.

Paul Steven Stone, a Cambridge-based writer, runs the site.