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Joan Vennochi

The casino fight gets personal

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / March 13, 2008

CASINO GAMBLING is all but dead in Massachusetts.

The only way to keep it alive is to weaken its chief political opponent, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.

The speaker believes Governor Deval Patrick is trying to do just that. He has no proof, just well-honed political instinct and curiosity about the timing of recent stories about his golf partners and miscellaneous friends.

From DiMasi's perspective, this is no longer a simple vote on casinos. This is personal. It's about DiMasi's honor, dignity, and integrity.

Patrick's casino licensing proposal is scheduled for a March 18 committee hearing. As it looks now, committee members will vote quickly to send the bill to the floor of the House with the recommendation that it should not pass. And it won't, because DiMasi, a longtime gambling opponent, doesn't want it to pass.

As long as DiMasi has the power, he has the votes to stop casinos. If his power ebbs, Patrick and the gambling lobby have a shot at flipping votes their way.

No matter what the source, a drip, drip, drip of stories critical of DiMasi help Patrick's cause, at least theoretically.

Last month, the Globe reported that DiMasi golfed with Joe O'Donnell, a friend and top shareholder in Suffolk Downs, the East Boston racetrack whose owners are pursuing a gaming license.

Now, DiMasi would be wise to think about appearances and state ethics laws, which prohibit elected officials from accepting gifts worth more than $50 from anyone with whom they have official business. On the other hand, there's no indication that golfing with O'Donnell, a friend of three decades, changed DiMasi's mind. The speaker opposed casinos before the golf outing and still opposes them.

Besides, it's Patrick, not DiMasi, who backs the Suffolk Downs crowd. The governor fell in love with the race track's rosy projections for casino-related jobs and revenue - and it didn't even take a golf invitation to win his heart.

This month, the Globe reported that the state inspector general found that a Canadian software company was improperly awarded a $13 million contract in a deal in which DiMasi "had an active interest."

It's true that DiMasi met with the state official involved in the decision to discuss a kind of software, but not a specific vendor. It's also true that two longtime DiMasi friends represented the company, Cognos ULC. Again, DiMasi would be wise to think about how that looks. He's no longer just a North End rep. He's speaker of the House, and appearances matter.

But, as the letter from Inspector General Gregory Sullivan points out, Patrick administration officials - not DiMasi - signed off on the Cognos deal. In doing so, the Patrick administration, not DiMasi, violated state bidding regulations. DiMasi's name isn't mentioned in the letter. Still, the story about Cognos was all about DiMasi.

Of course, the governor himself wouldn't be feeding DiMasi tips to reporters.

Although, when Patrick came to the Globe on Jan. 25 to meet with editorial writers and columnists, he wasn't shy about expressing frustration about his dealing's with DiMasi and "the enormous concentration of power in the leadership" of the House and Senate. Asked why he believes DiMasi is such a strong casino opponent, he alluded to "personal reasons" that explain "why he is uncomfortable with this." But, he added "They may or may not be the whole story." He declined to elaborate - "Never mind," he said - in essence planting seeds of doubt about DiMasi's true motives.

As a candidate, Patrick stayed above the fray and is urging his friend, Barack Obama, to do the same in the fight for the presidential nomination. But, once in office, the politics of hope didn't work for Patrick. So it's not surprising that his aides would turn to a more old-fashioned approach on Beacon Hill.

Despite the news stories -whatever their source - and the inherent effort to discredit him, DiMasi said, "I'm still against casino gambling."

Asked to predict what will happen on the casino bill, DiMasi said, "I believe the committee report will be upheld." That means no casinos, as long as DiMasi is speaker.

It also means Patrick wouldn't be sad to see a new speaker - another reason why DiMasi would be wise to think more about golf partners, lobbyist friends, and appearances.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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