Governor to testify in corruption trial

Discussions about software contract likely to be focus

(Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 27, 2011

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It’s not a place any governor wants to be, let alone one who has scorned the petty dealings of Beacon Hill.

But today, Governor Deval Patrick will make a tense trip to the witness stand in the federal corruption trial of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. He will be the first Massachusetts governor to testify in a corruption case since William F. Weld in the 1995 trial of a state senator.

By far the most prominent and closely watched witness, Patrick is expected to testify about the conversations he had with DiMasi as the speaker pushed for a state software contract as part of an alleged kickback scheme.

Testimony from Patrick’s aides has already painted a portrait of an administration that did not like the software deal but was willing to approve it in 2007 in hope of mending the rookie governor’s rocky relationship with the veteran speaker.

Leslie Kirwan, Patrick’s budget chief at the time, testified Wednesday that she questioned the initial $15 million price tag for the contract, worried it was too large a project to undertake. But DiMasi lobbied fervently for the deal, and the administration relented. When it was finalized, she wrote in an e-mail that she hoped “the big guy down the hall is happy.’’

Patrick and his aides, who are testifying for the prosecution, have not been accused of any wrongdoing. But such testimony has spotlighted Patrick’s sometimes painful evolution from a governor who rose to power promising to take on entrenched interests to one who learned how to work within the deal-making culture of the Legislature.

Republicans have been using the trial to try to cast Patrick and other Democrats as complicit in DiMasi’s alleged crimes. “The concern is that the governor would, in some way, be implicated in the entire affair, and that would somehow have a destabilizing effect on state government,’’ said Bruce E. Tarr, the Senate Republican leader.

Patrick and DiMasi initially had a tense relationship. The powerful speaker chafed at the governor’s CEO-style and outsider rhetoric and helped shoot down one of the governor’s first major initiatives, to legalize casinos.

Eventually, the two agreed to work more closely, after sharing a private dinner in the North End, with no aides present, in May 2008. “We had a great, quiet, come-to-Jesus kind of conversation with each other,’’ the governor said, describing the meal several months later.

In recent weeks, Patrick has been peppered with questions about DiMasi, but has refused to discuss him, saying it would be inappropriate because he is a witness.

“I’m going to respect the process,’’ Patrick said yesterday, batting away questions about the trial on his monthly call-in radio show on WTKK-FM. “We’ve cooperated with the process throughout, and I’m going to answer whatever questions they put to me or do my best to do so, and I want to confine my testimony to the courtroom, because I think that’s what I’m supposed to do.’’

Patrick asserted, however, that it was worthwhile for the state to pursue the type of software DiMasi wanted, because it was designed to help government efficiently manage its operations.

“On the merits, that is not a bad idea,’’ Patrick said.

He also said he is worried the trial is feeding public cynicism about Beacon Hill.

“Overwhelmingly, the people I deal with up on Beacon Hill are not goofing off,’’ he said. “They are doing their very best to bring their very best to their work day after day. The problem is there is so much supposition that it’s not that way that when something goes awry, everybody says, ‘Well, that just confirms my worst fears.’ ’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at