Case against DiMasi laid out as trial begins

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By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / May 6, 2011

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The corruption trial of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi began yesterday with federal prosecutors describing him as a desperate, corrupt politician who worked with several associates to sell his office in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.

“This case is about how he . . . and two close friends used that office for their private gain,’’ Assistant US Attorney S. Theodore Merritt said during pointed opening statements yesterday. “It’s about three men, close friends, who used the immense power entrusted by voters . . . to line their pockets.’’

DiMasi, who had arrived at US District Court in Boston with his wife and stepdaughter by his side, sat at his defense table listening attentively. He was flanked by defense lawyers who indicated they will turn the case into their own prosecution of key witness Joseph Lally, a former defendant who agreed to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a sharply reduced jail sentence.

In a booming voice, DiMasi’s attorney, William Cintolo, said in animated opening statements that Lally is “a liar, a cheat, a manipulator, and a quintessential namedropper. He himself will tell you, ‘I’m a liar.’ ’’

Thomas Drechsler, attorney for one of DiMasi’s two codefendants in the case, Richard Vitale, said, “Mr. Lally made more money . . . than anyone else in this courtroom,’’ adding that Lally had bragged to one of his business partners, “I can’t stop thinking about how to get money out of this deal.’’

The scene in the courthouse yesterday marked the beginning of the long-anticipated, high-profile trial of a man who was once one of the most powerful officials in Massachusetts. Over the next four hours, a jury of eight men and eight women heard a series of theatrical statements.

With Governor Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray listed as potential witnesses — Merritt indicated yesterday that the governor will be summoned to testify — the case is likely to reveal some of the inner workings of Beacon Hill.

The former House speaker, who resigned amid scandal in January 2009, and associates Vitale and Richard McDonough are charged in what prosecutors described as an elaborate scheme to steer $17.5 million in state contracts to a Burlington software company in exchange for secret payments. They each face eight counts of conspiracy, honest services fraud, and mail and wire fraud. DiMasi faces a ninth count of extortion.

DiMasi is accused of receiving $65,000 for pushing the contracts to Cognos.

Merritt described the case in the most detail to date, saying that DiMasi’s rise to the office of speaker after decades in the Legislature came with a downside for his personal life: A lawyer by profession, DiMasi could not handle the caseload he once did, losing a significant source of income, while living with $50,000 in monthly credit card debt.

To make up the money and continue his “extravagant lifestyle,’’ the prosecutor said, DiMasi engaged in unethical schemes. He was a hidden partner in a management company with Vitale that sought state business. And he was part of the plan to push software contracts toward Cognos, the Burlington software company, meeting associates at public events, in private offices, and on golf courses to secure the deal.

DiMasi had told an associate, who was receiving payments from Cognos for work he did not perform and in turn paid DiMasi a portion of those payments, that, “It’s about time we get business like this,’’ according to Merritt.

DiMasi is the third consecutive Massachusetts House speaker to face criminal charges, but the first of them to go to trial. His immediate predecessor, Thomas M. Finneran, resigned in 2004 amid allegations that he perjured himself during a federal probe of legislative redistricting. He pleaded guilty and avoided prison time.

Former speaker Charles F. Flaherty resigned in 1996 and accepted a plea bargain in relation to charges of income tax violations.

Merritt said DiMasi pushed for the Cognos contracts so hard that when he met with the governor at a reconciliation breakfast in 2007, the house speaker listed the contract award as one of two things he most wanted to see done. Patrick’s wish was for more investment in life sciences, Merritt said.

Merritt hinted that he expected that Lally’s credibility, as well as his deal with prosecutors, would be challenged, describing Lally as “just the kind of guy you’d expect to be involved in a scheme to bribe a politician and pay kickbacks to a friend.’’

But defense attorneys yesterday sought to make the case more about the arrogance of Lally, a former Cognos salesman who made $2.8 million in commissions for pushing the Cognos contracts.

He in turn paid $200,000 to McDonough, and $600,000 to Vitale.

Prosecutors say DiMasi was paid $65,000 in kickbacks from a lawyer whom McDonough and Lally had put on the Cognos payroll.

In March, Lally agreed to plead guilty. Prosecutors have agreed to recommend he serve two to three years in jail, rather than the 10 years he faced. They also agreed to let him keep some assets.

Vitale’s attorney, Martin Weinberg, said that Lally’s testimony was essentially purchased and that the government witness is so far in debt he would do anything to please prosecutors.

Weinberg and Drechsler described their clients as legitimate lobbyists and consultants and said that any payment they received was legal. Lally, lawyers said, was the one who dropped DiMasi’s name, at times when he had not spoken to DiMasi, Vitale, or McDonough.

Over the objection of prosecutors, Cintolo told jurors about a response Lally gave prosecutors when they had asked him during a recent hearing whether he had ever lied. “Well, I am a salesman,’’ he said.

Milton Valencia can be reached at