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House to vote on whether to keep DiMasi as speaker

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press Writer / January 4, 2009
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BOSTON—House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi is expected to win re-election to another term as speaker on Wednesday -- but his troubles aren't likely to end there.

Even as he organizes the 160-member House for a new two-year session and prepares for deep budget cuts, DiMasi must contend with the ethics clouds gathered over his office while tamping down the behind-the-scenes chatter by some of his top lieutenants already eyeing his seat.

While critics say the ethics questions and political jockeying has undercut the speaker's clout, top aides insist the Boston Democrat isn't distracted.

"Speaker DiMasi enjoys overwhelming support from the members and is proud of the House's accomplishments under his leadership," said DiMasi spokesman David Guarino. "The Speaker is focused on the important issues before the House in the next session."

Reminders of his troubles refuse to go away.

On Monday, just two days before DiMasi faces re-election by House members, close friend Richard Vitale is scheduled to be arraigned in Suffolk Superior Court for violations of state lobbying and campaign finance laws. Vitale is accused of concealing his work as a lobbyist and having contact with the speaker while pushing a bill on behalf of ticket brokers.

The speaker has said he never spoke to Vitale about the bill and Vitale has denied acting as a lobbyist. His attorney said the work he did for the Massachusetts Association of Ticket Brokers was exempt from the state's lobbying registration requirements.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said Vitale was paid $60,000 in lobbying fees by ticket brokers interested in changing the state's scalping laws. She said Vitale communicated directly with DiMasi before the bill passed the House last year. The legislation, which would have lifted restrictions on price markups by ticket brokers, died in the Senate.

While no direct allegations have been made against DiMasi, the cloud of uncertainty has threatened to open a political vacuum in the House. At least one ally of DiMasi has already publicly broken with him.

Rep. David Torrisi, chairman of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, said he will vote "present" during Wednesday's roll call. The North Andover Democrat said he was concerned the ethics investigations are making it difficult for DiMasi to be effective.

There's little evidence other House members are prepared to follow Torrisi.

House Ways and Means Chairman Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, one of the top candidates to replace DiMasi, is planning to vote for him on Wednesday, a DeLeo spokesman said.

Another top contender, House Majority Leader John Rogers, isn't expected to directly challenge DiMasi but, like DeLeo, has been trying to line up backers for a future bid.

State Rep. Peter Koutoujian, co-chairman of the Committee on Public Health, echoed the feelings of many House Democrats. He said members are generally pleased with DiMasi's leadership and predicted Wednesday will be "a day of overwhelming support for Speaker DiMasi."

"For all the sound and fury, there's no direct allegations of any misconduct by the Speaker," Koutoujian said. "I don't get the sense there is any groundswell out there."

Despite the questions dogging DiMasi, it's unlikely that he could be ousted immediately, said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University's College of Communication.

That's particularly true in the House, where the power of the speaker to appoint members to key positions tends to undercut support for any coup d'etat -- unless a speaker is already under indictment or more directly linked to wrongdoing in the public's eye.

"Once there's an indictment it strengthens the hands of the rebels," Berkovitz said. "Without an indictment, it is very, very tough."

The 10-count indictment issued against Vitale includes charges of failing to register as a lobbyist, as well as making political donations in excess of the state's $200 limit. It pertains only to Vitale, and not DiMasi. The case was referred to Coakley after Secretary of State William Galvin failed to get Vitale to register.

DiMasi had earlier repaid an unusual $250,000 third mortgage he received from Vitale on his North End condominium after the loan was disclosed by the Boston Globe. That loan could have been illegal if Vitale were a lobbyist, since the state's conflict-of-interest law prohibits members from accepting anything of value from lobbyists.

A second friend of DiMasi's -- Richard McDonough -- also found himself at odd with Galvin for refusing to detail his lobbying efforts on behalf the software company Cognos ULC efforts while the company was seeking state contracts.

Galvin backed off threats to suspend his ability to work as a lobbyist after McDonough agreed to provide the details. The Burlington-based software company received two state contracts worth $17.5 million in 2006 and 2007.

DiMasi knows how precarious the position of speaker can be.

He won election to the post in 2004 after former House Speaker Thomas Finneran opted out of the job under his own ethics cloud, including a federal investigation into Finneran's role in the redrawing of House districts.

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