Yvonne Abraham

Working the system

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / June 16, 2011

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Count me among those who found it hard to believe at first.

The speaker of the House taking kickbacks to fix contracts for an obscure software company?

Come on.

It was hard to believe because I’d hoped the era of such spectacular, bald, big-money corruption, for which this state was once justly notorious, had long since passed.

It was hard to believe because I couldn’t imagine anybody — let alone a speaker whose two predecessors were convicted of federal crimes — could be so monumentally stupid. Or so arrogant: To think he could go around the State House pressuring people on the arcane matter of performance management software without arousing suspicion. To accept a $250,000 mortgage from his buddy Richard Vitale and escape notice. And then to take $65,000 in Cognos payoffs barely masked by middleman Steven Topazio.

Even after yesterday’s guilty verdict, it’s difficult to fathom Salvatore F. DiMasi’s willingness to throw so much away for so little. Perhaps there was a desperate man taking cover behind the affable, old-school pol.

He is surely desperate now.

Faced with a level of corruption beyond what even jaded observers are used to, the justice system worked. That’s great news.

But a piece of this mess can’t be fixed by the justice system, and it’s even more damaging than extortion. It wasn’t just DiMasi and his buddies who were exposed in US District Chief Judge Mark Wolf’s courtroom: We also got a rare insight into how dirty deals get done on Beacon Hill.

We saw state legislators as lemmings: Former Representative Robert Coughlin of Dedham told of sponsoring a budget amendment that paved the way for a $4.5 million Cognos contract even though he knew nothing about the software. Unembarrassed, he called it “an honor’’ to be the speaker’s water boy.

We saw administration officials disregarding our best interests to award a total of $17.5 million in contracts they didn’t believe were necessary.

Bethann Pepoli, a former acting chief information officer, testified that she told the speaker the software wasn’t needed and then pushed for it anyway after he pressured her. Pepoli said she had hoped DiMasi would back her for a bigger state job.

Leslie Kirwan, Governor Deval Patrick’s secretary of administration and finance, initially opposed the software deal, then backed it in the interests of smoothing relations between the governor and DiMasi.

And we saw a governor, swept into power as an outsider vowing to change the way business is done on Beacon Hill, placating the grasping speaker barely six months into his first term. Patrick needed DiMasi’s support for a giant initiative to attract and keep life science companies in Massachusetts. DiMasi made it clear his support was tied to the software contract. Patrick caved.

As the defense pointed out, this is just the way things are done on Beacon Hill.

They’re right. The only difference here is that DiMasi took money for it.

In the wake of the speaker’s indictment, and eager to escape his taint, the governor and legislators — led by DiMasi’s successor Robert DeLeo — have introduced laws and ethics regulations to make Beacon Hill more transparent. They’re real reforms.

But a lot of what we heard on the stand is beyond the reach of rules. You can’t legislate a sense of honor.

With a few laudable exceptions, legislators still pay blind fealty to their leaders, unwilling to rock the boat for fear of compromising their own clout, giving the speaker and the Senate president near absolute power. Lobbyists still collect millions to influence policy. Good politics too often trumps good policy.

“We need laws to protect us,’’ says Pam Wilmot, who heads watchdog Common Cause Massachusetts, “and the character to resist these things.’’

We have plenty of the former. But as the DiMasi debacle proved, character has been in distressingly short supply.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at