DiMasi business ties questioned

His killing of bill benefited friend

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / May 1, 2008

Just months after House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi killed a bill that was designed to block a controversial liquefied natural gas project from being built on 73 acres in Fall River, the landowner, Jay Cashman, sold the property to the terminal developers and made a $14.2 million profit, according to a Globe review of real estate and legislative records.

DiMasi's actions, taken in 2006, raise questions not only because of his close relationship with Cashman, a wealthy contractor, but also because DiMasi's wife has been involved for at least two years in what the speaker last week termed a "business relationship" with Cashman and his wife.

Deborah DiMasi and Christy Scott Cashman are launching a cable television show premiering this Sunday night, one produced by a Cashman-owned company. Neither couple would describe the nature of the business relationship, nor say how much money, if any, Deborah DiMasi receives for her role.

"Relationships, money, and influence is what it is all about," said state Representative David B. Sullivan, a Fall River Democrat who, along with other local officials, has strongly opposed the LNG terminal. He said the personal connections between DiMasi and Cashman tainted the terminal legislation: "It smells bad."

DiMasi said in an interview that he was making public policy decisions and that none of his legislative moves were intended to help his friend. In addition, he said, he did not know financial details of Cashman's ownership of the Fall River property at the time.

Passage of the bill would have effectively prohibited the construction of an LNG terminal on the site and would have reduced the potential sale price of the property.

In another move that dismayed some New Bedford-area officials, DiMasi also shepherded legislation through the House last fall that would ease state permitting for a wind farm on Buzzards Bay. Cashman is seeking approval to construct 120 wind turbines in those waters.

DiMasi said he sought to open up Buzzards Bay to wind farm development because he strongly supports alternative energy, not because Cashman was interested in developing the site.

"We don't talk about those things. It was all policy-driven," DiMasi said.

Cashman declined to be interviewed. His spokesman, George Regan, said Cashman did not discuss his financial interest in the LNG terminal in Fall River or in the wind farm in Buzzards Bay with the speaker.

"He goes to great lengths to keep his relationship with the speaker personal," Regan said. "It is not related to business in any way."

While the nature of the cable TV show business relationship is not known, if Deborah DiMasi accepted money in the business relationship, it could pose a violation of state ethics laws that prohibit people with interests before the Legislature from providing anything of more than $50 in value to lawmakers. The prohibition extends to lawmakers' spouses and to their business relationships, as well.

DiMasi, as the public official, is the only one subject to penalties under the ethics law's provisions. Under the ethics rules, if the legislation was general in nature and not intended to benefit Cashman, it would not be a violation. DiMasi said that was precisely the case in these instances, that he was looking at broader public policy regarding both the LNG terminal and the Buzzards Bay wind farm, not trying to help a friend and business associate of his wife.

Violations of the law can draw fines of up to $2,000 and can also trigger criminal prosecutions at the discretion of law enforcement officials.

Cashman and DiMasi have long had close ties. Cashman has supported DiMasi politically, even loaning him his Back Bay mansion for a political event, and they socialize frequently.

DiMasi has previously recognized the potential for questions about his relationship with Cashman, addressing the issue of their friendship and his wife's business connection to the Cashman couple head-on.

In March 2007 DiMasi made an official disclosure to the House clerk outlining the potential for a conflict of interest, including the production company venture that involved the Cashmans and his wife. DiMasi said in his letter to the clerk that he was publicly disclosing some details of the relationship to "dispel the impression" that Cashman could "unduly enjoy my favor" in his duties as speaker. Such a disclosure does not immunize an official from the law's provisions, according to state ethics law.

Deborah DiMasi and Christy Cashman, who co-owns the film company with her husband, are producing a monthly book review program for NECN cable television. The firm, Saint Aire Productions, boasts that the show will "expose . . . the 'naked truth' behind the works of best-selling authors and feature celebrity guests."

"It's a private matter," said Regan, when asked what compensation Deborah DiMasi receives, or who is sponsoring or paying for the show. NECN also declined to comment. .

The show will be taped in the Cashmans' Dartmouth Street mansion. Its first airing is scheduled for this Sunday.

DiMasi already is the subject of State Ethics Commission complaints filed by the state Republican Party alleging that he has used his influence to help friends and associates.

The GOP complained this week, based on a Globe story on Sunday, that the state's association of ticket brokers retained a close associate of DiMasi's to help them with their agenda on Beacon Hill. The associate, Richard Vitale, never registered as a lobbyist; in 2006, Vitale loaned $250,000 to DiMasi based on an unusual third mortgage on DiMasi's North End condominium. DiMasi later supported a bill that strongly favored the ticket brokers' business interests, and it sailed through the House.

An earlier ethics commission complaint followed Globe stories describing how DiMasi had pushed funding for a new $13 million computer program, the contract for which Governor Deval Patrick's administration improperly awarded to a computer company whose lobbyist is a close friend of the speaker. The computer company, Cognos ULC, also has been the lead sponsor of a charity golf tournament chaired by DiMasi.

In each of those instances, DiMasi has denied that he took any actions intended to favor any individuals and said he was acting in the interests of state policy.

Cashman has worked on many taxpayer-funded projects. His company dug the outflow pipes for the Deer Island sewage treatment plant, and it also laid the track for the controversial Greenbush commuter rail line. He was also one of the major contractors on the Big Dig.

Last August, when the Massachusetts Legislature hosted the National Conference of State Legislatures, Cashman allowed DiMasi to use his Back Bay estate for an event to honor other senate presidents, house speakers, and legislative leaders from around the country.

Cashman also donated about $15,000 to the national legislative group for the conference. His cash donation was part of the $400,000 that DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray raised from Beacon Hill lobbyists, their clients, and corporate interests whose business activities are often tied to legislative actions.

Cashman's firm has made large donations to the Old North Church Foundation, a favorite charity of DiMasi's wife, who is vice chairwoman of the foundation board.

Cashman's profit on the Fall River property stems from his purchase of 73 acres on the banks of the Taunton River, the site of a former oil depot, in 2000 for $2.6 million. He later gave Weaver's Cove Energy an option on the property to build the LNG terminal, a project that was hotly opposed by Fall River political leaders.

In 2006, as the Legislature ended its session, Fall River leaders pushed a bill that Governor Mitt Romney said he would sign if it reached his desk. The bill would have effectively blocked the terminal by imposing height restrictions on ships passing under state bridges.

DiMasi said he killed the bill because Romney refused to accept an amendment that also would have shut down the existing Suez Energy LNG Distrigas terminal on the Mystic River in Everett, a major source of natural gas energy for New England. DiMasi said his North End constituents and other neighborhoods face potential disaster if there were a terrorist attack against the Everett tank. He suggested it would have been inconsistent to block the LNG plan in Fall River and not shut down the Everett site as well.

"If I'm going to protect Fall River, why wouldn't I protect my constituents, my family?" DiMasi said. "If I'm suggesting a facility would be dangerous with LNG coming down the Taunton River, is it any less dangerous in my neighborhood coming through Boston Harbor? No."

DiMasi acknowledged that he never in his nearly 30-year legislative career pushed to close the Everett terminal.

Five months after DiMasi rebuffed Fall River political leaders, Cashman sold the LNG site to Weaver's Cove Energy for $16.8 million. James Grasso, a spokesman for Weaver's Cove, said the demise of the bill blocking the terminal did not play a factor in its decision to buy the land from Cashman. The Weaver Cove's decision to buy the land stemmed from federal regulators' approval two years before, he said.

"I don't think the legislation had any impact," Grasso said.

The LNG project received an unexpected blow in October 2007 when the Coast Guard ruled that it was too risky for LNG tankers to travel in congested areas in the Taunton River. The firm is appealing the decision, while also pressing ahead with alternate plans.

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