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Judge had 2 roles in Finneran case
Jurist's comments prompted probe

The Boston Globe
December 3, 2004
Frank Phillips

 

A federal judge in the case that led to a perjury investigation this year of former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran had earlier served as chairman of a hospital network that had business before the Legislature, but he did not disclose the situation when he was hearing the case involving Finneran, records show.

Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya was the unpaid chairman of Rhode Island-based Lifespan when it acquired Tuft's New England Medical Center in 1997. The hospital network hired a Beacon Hill lobbyist to seek financial help and other assistance from the Legislature, but in the late 1990s Finneran was widely viewed by hospital officials and lobbyists as a barrier to the requests.

Earlier this year, Selya was one of three judges on a panel that ruled in favor of minority-group voters who challenged a legislative redistricting plan developed by the House.

The ruling, written by Selya, included an unusual footnote disputing the speaker's truthfulness in testimony for the case. Federal prosecutors began a perjury investigation of Finneran soon after the ruling.

The Code of Conduct for federal judges states that jurists should steer clear of ''the appearance of impropriety," which the code defines as ''whether the conduct would create in reasonable minds . . . a perception that the judge's ability to carry out judicial responsibilities with integrity, impartiality, and competence is impaired."

In a brief interview yesterday, Selya, who is based in Providence, said he did not focus on New England Medical's lobbying before the Massachusetts Legislature and did not know who Finneran was until hearing the redistricting case. Selya said he served on the NEMC board as an ex-officio member, but did not attend the meetings from 1997 to 2002, when Lifespan owned the center.

The judge took strong exception to a reporter's questions seeking details on what he knew about NEMC's lobbying. ''What that has to do with what I should have done or what I should not have done in 2003 and 2004 baffles me," he said, referring to questions of conflict in the redistricting case. Shortly afterward, he hung up.

Selya's role as the unpaid chairman of Lifespan has put the judge at the center of controversies over the last dozen years. Lifespan, with $1.2 billion in revenue in 2003, is the largest nonprofit healthcare system in Rhode Island, and its purchase of NEMC and other business dealings have drawn criticism. He resigned as chairman of Lifespan in 1999, but still serves on the board.

''I am not aware of a single judge in America who plays as significant a role in as large a corporation as Judge Selya plays in Lifespan," said Douglas Kendall, executive director of Community Rights Counsel, a public interest law firm in Washington, D.C., that monitors judicial ethics.

Five years ago, Kendall's firm issued a report that criticized Selya for presiding over two civil cases involving two large corporations in which he held stock. The law firm argued that the holdings were a conflict under the Code of Conduct and should have required him to recuse himself.

Selya recused himself in a separate matter two years ago, stepping aside from participating in an appeal by Vincent A. Cianci Jr., former mayor of Providence, to the First Circuit Court of Appeals to delay the start of Cianci's prison sentence on a corruption conviction.

He said that he had no relationship with Cianci other than having attended functions with him and that they lived near one another. Selya said at the time he was sure he could have been fair, but felt it would be best to disqualify himself to ensure ''the perception of fairness."

Lifespan's interest in the Massachusetts Legislature began in the 1990s. When Lifespan acquired NEMC in 1997, it made a strong move to force Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to put the center back on its list of providers.

New England Medical Center and Lifespan are listed on public records as hiring State House lobbyist John A. Brennan Jr., a former Senate assistant majority leader. His work included making a case for legislation that would have forced Harvard Pilgrim to do business with New England Medical.

In 1997, Finneran, who had been elected speaker a year earlier, refrained from taking a position on the highly controversial legislation, participants in the discussions recalled. At stake was up to 15 percent of NEMC's revenues.

Brennan and several officials from NEMC met in the spring of 1997 with the speaker, according to participants in the meeting who asked not to be named. Selya was not at the meeting or directly involved in the effort to persuade Finneran to back the bill, according to one participant, who asked not to be identified.

The battle ended after New England Medical and the bill's sponsors were able to move the bill through the Senate. It was headed to the House for action, but Harvard Pilgrim backed down and agreed to again include NEMC in its network, making the legislation unnecessary.

The legislative redistricting case came before Selya and two other judges more recently.

In February, a ruling written by Selya threw out the redistricting plan and included a footnote that chastised Finneran for insisting he had no involvement in the redistricting process. The ruling stated that ''circumstantial evidence strongly suggests the opposite conclusion." It pointed out that Finneran hand-picked the members of the redistricting committee and its chairman, that he ensured that the committee hired a Boston lawyer who is Finneran's close political ally and boyhood friend.

Within days of the ruling, the public corruption unit of the US attorney's office to subpoena State House records.

Activity surrounding the probe appears to have increased in recent days. The Globe reported Thursday that Finneran's former chief legal counsel and his former chief of staff were called to a federal grand jury earlier this week, a development that legal specialists believe reflects a move by the federal prosecutors to decide whether to indict the former speaker for perjury or drop the case.


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