Joan Vennochi

Something is rotten in Massachusetts

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / March 10, 2011

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TO STATE the obvious: Sal DiMasi is in big trouble.

First, his former law partner avoided indictment by helping prosecutors put together a high-stakes political corruption case against the once powerful speaker of the House. Then, one of DiMasi’s codefendants made a deal with prosecutors.

DiMasi is also on the wrong side of another flip — the one from slaps on the wrist to jail time for disgraced Bay State politicians.

Former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson was sentenced to three and a half years after pleading guilty to accepting $23,000 in bribes. Chuck Turner, a former Boston city councilor, drew a three-year sentence after he was found guilty of accepting a $1,000 bribe.

DiMasi allegedly got $65,000 for steering $17.5 million in state contracts to a Canadian software firm. Given the sentences handed down to two black elected officials-turned-defendants, leniency for DiMasi would be a difficult cause after a guilty plea or finding.

He was a bigger player on the state’s political stage and the third speaker in a row to face criminal charges. His predecessors proclaimed their innocence until they entered guilty pleas and escaped without jail time.

DiMasi also maintains his innocence. But he has a tough fight ahead, especially after a codefendant, Joseph P. Lally Jr., pleaded guilty to conspiracy, extortion, and mail and wire fraud, in return for a two- to three-year sentence recommendation.

A brief filed last month by prosecutors paints a tawdry picture of DiMasi pushing the case for Cognos Software at every level of state government and then trying to erase evidence of his involvement.

When DiMasi first set things up so that his then law partner, Steven Topazio, could connect with Cognos, he told Topazio, “It’s about time we got business like this.’’ When The Boston Globe started writing about that business, DiMasi took steps to cover it up.

When Topazio showed him entries in his check register showing money funneled regularly to DiMasi, the speaker allegedly said, “It would be nice if you could lose your check register.’’ To the press, he denied knowing anything about the connection between Cognos and some of his closest associates.

But, according to prosecutors, DiMasi and associates “leveraged his power as speaker’’ to pressure state officials involved in contract decisions. In 2005, prosecutors charge, DiMasi personally pushed the state’s commissioner of education to embrace the Cognos software model. The speaker also got a lawmaker to introduce a budget amendment to provide funding for it. In 2006, he shepherded the wording of legislation so that it favored Cognos.

DiMasi’s biggest push for Cognos came after the 2006 election of Governor Deval Patrick. One of the new administration’s priorities was to push an emergency bond bill through the Legislature to fund projects and programs about to expire or lose federal funding. DiMasi made it clear, prosecutors allege, that he wanted millions for Cognos, in exchange for help in passing the emergency bond legislation. When a $13 million Cognos contract was finally signed in August 2007, Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwan emailed her undersecretary: “Everyone seems happy. Hope the big guy down the hall is, too, and we get some credit.’’

No one’s happy about it now. According to the Globe’s Andrea Estes and Shelley Murphy, Patrick is on a list of potential prosecution witnesses for DiMasi’s upcoming trial, along with three former aides: Kirwan; Doug Rubin, Patrick’s former chief of staff and current political consultant; and David Morales, a former deputy chief of staff who just left state government for the private sector.

If DiMasi goes to trial, Massachusetts will get an inside look at how his wheeling and dealing affected policy decisions made by a broad range of public officials. Maybe all those being pushed so hard by DiMasi should have asked more questions. The Pat-


administration delayed awarding the Cognos contract but eventually gave in.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’’ Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet.’’

DiMasi is on trial. But the state of Massachusetts is the backdrop for yet another test of rot.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at