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Taxpayers’ bill nearing $378,000 in DiMasi case

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / December 9, 2009

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The state House of Representatives has paid private attorneys nearly $378,000 in taxpayer money to represent the speaker’s office in a federal corruption investigation of former House speaker Salvatore DiMasi, newly disclosed records show.

DiMasi handpicked the law firm a few weeks before he resigned on Jan. 27, as the US attorney’s office was stepping up its probe of allegations that the speaker took money from a software company, Cognos, in exchange for helping the firm win state contracts.

The House’s contract with the law firm, Gargiulo/Rudnick, was signed by the House business manager on DiMasi’s last day in office, but all payments to the firm, a total of $377,801, were made after Speaker Robert A. DeLeo took over. The contract is open-ended, and the lawyers could continue to get paid until DiMasi’s case concludes, a House spokesman said.

DeLeo declined to be interviewed, refusing through a spokesman to explain exactly what the firm has done for the money or to whom specifically it has provided legal services. The spokesman, Seth Gitell, said only that the contract, effective Jan. 8, was “to provide legal consultation, analysis, and representation to the House of Representatives.’’

“The contract and monies spent reflect the House’s compliance with the federal investigation into former speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi,’’ Gitell said in a prepared statement. “Throughout the years, government agencies have called upon outside counsel for tasks outside the expertise of in-house counsel. This kind of intensive discovery work is highly specialized and outside the scope of House counsel.’’

He added: “To be clear, these costs were incurred as a result of the federal investigation of the actions alleged to have been taken by the prior speaker.’’

The Gargiulo/Rudnick lawyer who is handing the case, Robert Griffith, also represented DiMasi’s chief legal counsel, Daniel Toscano, when Toscano testified before the federal grand jury investigating DiMasi. Gitell said House funds were not used to pay Toscano’s legal bills.

Neither Griffith nor DiMasi, whose own private attorney is representing him in the corruption probe, returned phone calls seeking comment. DiMasi is currently awaiting trial on corruption charges in US District Court in Boston.

Though the Legislature has a staff of lawyers, both the House and Senate have occasionally hired outside counsel in litigation or criminal investigations. Several lawmakers said yesterday they did not know why outside lawyers were required in this instance or why the costs are so high.

Some lawmakers, both publicly and privately, have questioned whether so much should be spent on legal fees as budgets throughout state government are being slashed and staffers laid off.

“I’m amazed - disgusted is a better word,’’ said Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr. of North Reading, the leading Republican in the overwhelmingly Democratic chamber. “If these are bills incurred by former Speaker DiMasi, why are we paying them? If we had to defend legislation we passed and there’s a court challenge, it would be entirely different.’’

Jones added: “I find it particularly offensive because I’m asking my staff to take a furlough. That everyone has to contribute five days to the Sal DiMasi defense fund is outrageous.’’

It is not only Republicans who have raised objections to the spending. Representative John Quinn, Democrat of Dartmouth, said he was especially angry, because just last week one of his aides was laid off and another had his salary cut.

“It’s unfortunate that many men and women at the State House had to be laid off three weeks before Christmas as a result of former speaker Sal DiMasi’s inappropriate behavior,’’ Quinn said. “This contract should be reviewed by an outside entity to determine whether the taxpayers of the Commonwealth should continue to pay legal fees for the defense of Sal DiMasi.’’

Under the terms of the contract, the bill for Griffith is $300 per hour, an associate costs $225 per hour, and a paralegal $75 per hour.

The expenditure turned up this week, tucked away in a spreadsheet analyzing House expenses that Representative William Brownsberger, Democrat of Belmont, posted on his website. Brownsberger, who declined to comment, had submitted a request for records to the state comptroller’s office to see what legislative expense data were publicly available. The most recent payment to the law firm was Sept. 30.

The $377,000 in payments roughly equals 1,430 hours of legal work, or the equivalent of a lawyer working on the case full-time for 36 weeks. By Sept. 30, the firm would have been under contract for roughly 36 weeks.

Thomas Finneran, the former House speaker who was convicted of obstruction of justice in 2007 in connection with a legislative redistricting plan, also hired private lawyers, at a cost of $243,000, to represent the speaker’s office throughout the case, Gitell said.

The Senate hired outside counsel to respond to subpoenas in the criminal cases against former senators Dianne Wilkerson and James Marzilli, but the amounts were far smaller.

The Senate paid Ropes & Gray $38,445 in fiscal year 2009 to provide legal advice to the Senate Ethics Committee, which was reviewing bribery allegations against Wilkerson and sexual assault charges against Marzilli.

The firm Donoghue Barrett & Singal was paid $12,615 during the same period for “document production assistance in the Wilkerson probe, said Senate counsel Alice Moore.

The office of Governor Deval Patrick did not hire outside lawyers to respond to subpoenas in the DiMasi case.