Adrian Walker

A meal that didn’t sit well

By Adrian Walker
Glboe Columnist / May 23, 2011

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The turning point in the relationship between Sal DiMasi and Deval Patrick occurred over breakfast in 2007, or so federal prosecutors believe.

It was at that breakfast meeting, they say, that DiMasi asked for the governor’s help in approving the software contract with a Burlington company called Cognos — a deal that is now at the heart of the former speaker’s corruption case in US District Court.

Breakfast meetings are something of a tradition on Beacon Hill. Bill Weld and Charlie Flaherty may have set the precedent in 1991 when they had a famous “come to Jesus’’ meeting in which then-Speaker Flaherty pointedly informed rookie Governor Weld that he would never get anything accomplished if he didn’t stop his campaign against the Legislature. That breakfast laid the groundwork for the Monday meetings of the governor, speaker, and Senate president that continue to this day.

Another Beacon Hill power pair also had regular breakfast confabs. Thomas Finneran and Tom Birmingham — once speaker and Senate president, respectively, — used to meet, although with less success, at a restaurant on Charles Street, reasoning that everyone they wanted to avoid dined at the Parker House.

At the Patrick-DiMasi breakfast described by prosecutors, the politicians exchanged wish lists. Patrick’s fondest desire was a life-sciences bill, a big appropriation with long-term implications; one of DiMasi’s wishes was approval of a contract to Cognos — a comparatively minor issue, but one apparently dear to the speaker, or so the government alleges.

Now, no one is suggesting any impropriety on the part of the Patrick administration. Still, some members of his team may be called to testify. Even the governor himself may take the stand.

Among DiMasi associates, a spokesman, David Guarino, is likely to be asked about statements he made on behalf of his former boss. DiMasi repeatedly denied, through Guarino, that he knew anything about Cognos.

It’s hard to imagine things going worse for DiMasi than they did last week, with a former associate, Richard Lally, detailing the scheme in which DiMasi allegedly collected kickbacks. This week’s witness list is intended to show how the Beacon Hill veteran imposed his will on a new administration, one that was coincidentally being hammered publicly for its inability to work with the Legislature.

Relations between Patrick and DiMasi eventually did warm considerably. The billion-dollar life sciences initiative would pass and become a centerpiece of the governor’s reelection campaign. Patrick would start to refer to DiMasi as a friend, with apparent sincerity, and DiMasi stopped mocking the governor behind closed doors. Patrick’s problems with the Legislature didn’t evaporate, but his proposals no longer instantly died.

Trials that expose the inner workings of government tend to get uncomfortable, and not just for defendants. The lawmaking process is often messy. Pushing through the Cognos contract was a textbook lesson in sheer political clout, and jurors may wonder why no one in the executive branch put the brakes on it.

But this week will also be a trial of the culture on Beacon Hill. With a third consecutive speaker under indictment, the notion that this is business as usual threatens to resonate with a disgusted public. Republicans like Senator Scott Brown have suggested this case demonstrates the perils of “one-party rule’’ — as though state government was pristine under the four GOP administrations that preceded Patrick’s. That isn’t true.

This week, we may learn more than we wanted to know about wish lists. Patrick, however innocently, got what he wanted. DiMasi got what he wanted, too — followed by a trial he surely didn’t want. It must have seemed like just another deal at the time.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at