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Joan Vennochi

Coakley's political hot potato

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
June 15, 2008

LIKE IT or not, Attorney General Martha Coakley is about to get a political hot potato: a report that raises questions about whether a good friend of House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi complied with state lobbying laws.

Richard Vitale, DiMasi's accountant, former campaign manager, and one-time lender, is refusing to tell Secretary of State William F. Galvin what he did for the Massachusetts Ticket Brokers Association. The ticket brokers, meanwhile, filed a report saying that they hired Vitale's firm and paid him $60,000. But the ticket brokers refused to give Galvin any more information, saying he has no legal authority to order hearings or investigate alleged violations of lobbying laws.

By statute, Galvin said his only recourse now is to refer the matter to the attorney general. "I'm not trying to pass the buck. I would have preferred to resolve it. But when you have people who are absolutely not going to cooperate, you can either ignore it or refer it," said Galvin.

The details of who did what and when are important.

In 2006, Vitale loaned DiMasi $250,000, which the speaker recently paid back. The ticket brokers say they hired Vitale's firm in 2007; legislation they support passed the House with DiMasi's support. Vitale registered as a lobbyist for 2008. He denies lobbying in the past, calling himself a "strategist." If Vitale worked as a lobbyist when he loaned DiMasi the money, he would have violated the state's conflict-of-interest law.

Once Galvin files his report, the next step is up to Coakley. Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said Coakley should investigate the matter. "The attorney general is the chief lawyer for the commonwealth. It's her job to enforce the laws. If he [Vitale] refuses to comply with the secretary of state's process, yes, that's a matter for her," said Wilmot.

In April, the Massachusetts Republican Party also asked Coakley to investigate the work Vitale did on behalf of the ticket brokers. At the time, the AG issued a statement that revealed nothing about her intentions.

"It is extremely important that the public have confidence that government and government officials comply with the law when they undertake public business," she said. "We are also aware that there are multiple state agencies with jurisdiction to look into allegations of impropriety or misconduct and we recognize our own responsibilities . . . to respond to and investigate allegations that affect public confidence in the workings of government."

Investigating the powerful can be perilous territory for an attorney general with aspirations for higher office.

When he ran for governor in 1998, Democrat and two-term AG Scott Harshbarger was undermined by fellow politicians, including some in his own party, who resented the cases he brought against their friends. Some high-profile failures helped Harshbarger's critics argue that he prosecuted on less than airtight evidence in order to grab headlines and advance his own political ambition.

Thomas F. Reilly, the attorney general who followed Harshbarger and also ran unsuccessfully for governor, shied away from such cases. Reilly's refusal to prosecute Cardinal Bernard Law over the clergy sexual abuse scandal was a bitter pill for victims to swallow.

Whether Vitale did or didn't comply with laws requiring him to register as a lobbyist is just the tip of a bigger iceberg that is before the state ethics commission.

The ultimate question is whether DiMasi knew of Vitale's dealings with the ticket brokers and whether his mortgage with Vitale violated ethics statutes. It's possible the ethics commission will ultimately refer the matter to Coakley. The US attorney's office could also be involved.

Coakley, who is serving her first term as attorney general, is a political star with a bright future. When the talk turns to potential candidates for governor or US Senate, her name comes up. She has earned her place in the political establishment.

What happened to Harshbarger is a reminder that the establishment doesn't like to be investigated.

But the AG is the people's lawyer. This is one hot potato that must be handled with the people in mind. That means taking on the powerful.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@gobe.com.

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