Joan Vennochi

Picture of corruption

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / June 16, 2011

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WHEN SALVATORE F. DiMasi finally started talking, it was too late. A jury had just found him guilty of corruption charges that could put him in jail for 20 years.

The once-powerful speaker of the House never took the stand. But yesterday, as he exited the federal courthouse with red eyes and sorrowful family members at his side, DiMasi told the media scrum he knew he did not have the “requisite intent’’ for the crime. He always acted in the best interests of clients and constituents, he said. He always complied with state requirements, he insisted. “Evidently,’’ he said, “federal law seems to require something different.’’

If that’s his defense, no wonder DiMasi did not testify.

The law that did him in is not that mysterious. The government had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that DiMasi conspired to get money in return for official acts.

“I want you to remember your common sense . . . When a public official takes action in return for payments to his friends, that is not just a breach of duty, that’s a federal crime,’’ prosecutor Anthony Fuller said in closing arguments.

Common sense prevailed. All the smoke and Shakespeare from defense lawyers could not erase the clear and critical intersection between cash and a speaker’s push for one company’s software.

Cognos, a Burlington-based software company, paid money to DiMasi’s law partner. The law partner told the jury he deposited the Cognos payments and wrote checks that eventually totaled $65,000 to DiMasi. The law partner also testified that he did nothing to earn the fee. Meanwhile — according to a string of government witnesses, including Governor Deval Patrick — DiMasi lobbied hard for a $13 million contract for a product only Cognos could supply.

That $65,000 was small change compared with several hundred thousand dollars in payments that prosecutors also said were funnelled to DiMasi and his friends. But it provided the clearest line between Cognos and DiMasi.

DiMasi was convicted of seven of nine counts against him, including extortion and conspiracy to defraud citizens of his honest services. DiMasi’s co-defendant, Richard McDonough, was convicted on six counts. A third co-defendant, Richard Vitale, was acquitted.

DiMasi and his attorney, Thomas R. Kiley, said the case would be appealed. The case, said Kiley, presents “complex legal issues at the intersection of politics and law.’’

That may be, but during the trial defense lawyers devoted most of their energy to savaging Joseph Lally, the Cognos salesman and co-defendant who became a cooperating witness for prosecutors. Lally was a liar, a tax evader, a thief, and a gambler, McDonough’s lawyer, Tom Dreschler, told the jury in his closing argument. The problem for Lally’s former pals: on the witness stand, Lally was the worst kind of liar — a shameless and likeable one, who for once seemed to be telling the truth about the underlying conspiracy between these golfing buddies and longtime friends. Besides, if Lally is such a creep, why were DiMasi and the others hanging out with him?

DiMasi’s ultimate fate is unknown; an Aug. 18 sentencing date was set. But while the verdict surely ends life as he once knew it, its fallout reaches beyond a former speaker and his friends.

If DiMasi thought what he was doing was only business as usual, what does that say about business as usual on Beacon Hill?

Reacting to the verdict, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo called the news “deeply troubling’’ and “a powerful blow to the public’s trust in government.’’ Added DeLeo — who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee when DiMasi was pushing the Cognos appropriation: “This was definitely not business as usual — and it is a slur on every hardworking public servant to suggest otherwise.’’

After this verdict, Beacon Hill lobbyists and lawmakers should make sure they understand what is lawful business and what isn’t. If they have any doubts, they should think about DiMasi standing outside the courthouse, with the media closing in on him and his family. “Can we get him out of here?’’ inquired Kiley, his lawyer.

Someone should have asked that a long time ago.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at