Testimony turns to Beacon Hill ties

Patrick on list for DiMasi trial

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 23, 2011

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The corruption trial of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi has so far featured a lobbyist, a salesman, and other peripheral players in the state’s political scene. This week, the heavy hitters take the stand.

The potential witnesses — who include an Obama administration official, one of the leading Democratic strategists in Massachusetts, and Governor Deval Patrick — will shine an uncomfortable spotlight on the connections between the indicted former speaker and many of the recent power brokers on Beacon Hill.

DiMasi’s trial has become an inescapable and awkward backdrop for his former colleagues, fellow Democrats, and lobbyists at the State House, many of whom still have fond feelings for the man they call Sal. Some are angry their names have been dragged into a corruption case. Many worry about the blowback from voters.

“There’s a mix of emotions,’’ said Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, a Boston Democrat. “Some folks are saying, ‘I can’t believe it.’ Some folks are like, ‘What does it mean for all of us?’ Because this does affect the institution, broadly and specifically to each person here.’’

Many of DiMasi’s former colleagues say they are trying their best to tune out the drama. The North End Democrat is the third speaker in a row to have left office under a legal cloud.

“There isn’t, frankly, any conversation about it all,’’ insisted Representative James R. Miceli, a Wilmington Democrat. “I’m taking care of so many things right now. I just read the newspapers, that’s all.’’

The witnesses expected this week include David Simas, a White House adviser and Patrick’s former deputy chief of staff; Doug Rubin, a Democratic strategist who helped manage both of Patrick’s campaigns and served as the governor’s chief of staff; Leslie A. Kirwan, Patrick’s former budget chief, who is now a top financial officer at Harvard; and David Morales, the governor’s former commissioner of health care finance.

Each is testifying for the prosecution, and is likely to be questioned about the conversations they had with DiMasi as he tried to steer a state contract to a software company in an alleged kickback scheme. The Patrick administration signed off on the contract, but its officials have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Robert Ross, who was chief of staff to the Senate budget committee and is now chief policy adviser to Senate President Therese Murray, and David Guarino, DiMasi’s former spokesman and now a public relations specialist, are also on this week’s list of prosecution witnesses.

Thomas E. Dwyer Jr., a former president of the Boston Bar Association, said he expects prosecutors will ask the witnesses some version of a simple question: Would you have moved ahead with the software contract that DiMasi wanted if you knew that DiMasi was getting money in the deal? The line of questioning, he said, is intended to show that DiMasi deceived others en route to violating the public trust.

DiMasi’s lawyers, he said, may use the governor and other state officials as character witnesses, by asking them to recall positive legislation that DiMasi helped negotiate.

The political fallout will be difficult to measure, but the trial has already produced some embarrassing reminders of the close ties between DiMasi and the Legislature’s current leaders.

On Friday, for example, Dino Difronzo, a friend and political ally of DiMasi’s, testified that he and the speaker met with Robert A. DeLeo in December 2007 to begin quietly grooming DeLeo, who was then the House budget chief, to become the next speaker.

At the time, before any scandal had erupted, DiMasi was publicly insisting that he intended to remain speaker. Two years later, DeLeo was elected to the position, a day after DiMasi resigned amid controversy over the software contract.

DeLeo has sought to distance himself from his predecessors’ scandals by passing ethics legislation, reshuffling the House’s leadership, and, earlier this month, approving a bill to reduce patronage in state hiring.

The trial is an unwelcome distraction for him and for Patrick, who is trying to tackle the cost of health care while traveling the country, selling his memoir and campaigning for President Obama’s reelection.

“It’s infuriating for a governor to have to testify in these sorts of petty political corruption schemes over which he had no control,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College. “Just as a point of your own political survival, you don’t want your people having to testify in a corruption trial, particularly when political corruption in Massachusetts has become almost institutional.’’

Last week, Patrick scolded a reporter for asking him about a case that is still pending, but said: “I’m going to do my duty, if called, and answer whatever questions they put to me.’’

“I’m worried about the cloud that hangs over Beacon Hill while the trial is underway,’’ he said in an interview with WCVB-TV.

The governor added that the kickback scheme of which DiMasi is accused is, in his own view, “not a matter of routine’’ in the State House. “Overwhelmingly,’’ he said, “people work really hard, and work with a very high level of integrity.’’

Nevertheless, Republicans have already begun pointing to the trial as damning evidence of a “culture of corruption.’’

“It’s not just these defendants in that courtroom who have let us down,’’ US Senator Scott Brown told graduates at Lasell College last week. “They have been enabled by a go-along-to-get-along attitude that deeply saturates the one-party control of government in this state.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at