The Devil in Sal DiMasi

The federal indictment and scandalous headlines have made his alleged sins brutally clear. Yet much about the ex-speaker’s downfall has remained a mystery. The untold story of a titan’s desperate final days in power, and the private crisis that may have driven him to risk everything.

Bob DeLeo was the unquestioning conduit who would push the contract through the House. Three days before he introduced the bill, DiMasi’s chief of staff, Maryann Calia, said she would be referring the software contract to DeLeo because his committee would give “quick action” to the bill, according to an e-mail cited in the indictment. It did. One week after DeLeo’s Ways and Means Committee took it, the bill had been signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick.

To be clear, acting U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks says he doesn’t believe any other public official is implicated in DiMasi’s alleged wrongdoing. But for DeLeo, the Cognos amendment isn’t the worst of it. There’s a far more egregious example of him acquiescing to his old boss.

It came during the drafting of a piece of legislation that ultimately became the Massachusetts Oceans Act of 2008. The bill sought to provide comprehensive environmental management of the state’s coastal waters. One of the potentially affected development proposals was from DiMasi’s friend, construction magnate Jay Cashman, who was looking to build some 120 wind turbines in Buzzards Bay, a project hotly opposed by environmental groups and local activists. In March 2007, DiMasi publicly disclosed to the House clerk his close friendship with Cashman, also mentioning his wife, Debbie’s, friendship with Cashman’s wife, Christy. (The two women hosted a show about books on NECN, a program the Cashmans paid the cable station to air. NECN dropped the program after the indictment.) DiMasi didn’t recuse himself outright from the ocean bill. He just said he could be trusted not to sully the state’s interests with his friend’s business. “I make this disclosure to dispel the impression that the Cashmans…could unduly enjoy my favor in any matters that come before the House,” he wrote in his letter of disclosure.

The ocean legislation moved along, without any mention of Cashman. But after the House’s second reading of the bill on November 15, 2007, minutes before the gavel fell a final time and the bill was sent to the Senate, DeLeo slipped in an 11-page single-spaced amendment, one paragraph of which allowed for Cashman’s wind turbines on Buzzards Bay.

The bill passed the House overwhelmingly. Only the next day did legislators and environmental activists realize what had happened. “It was really something that seemed to be orchestrated by the speaker,” says Sue Reid, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. Indeed, the Boston Herald reported that Jim Eisenberg, DeLeo’s chief of staff, said the amendment had been added after consulting with DiMasi’s office. People close to DeLeo today, though, tell Boston that DiMasi didn’t pressure him to put it in. In any case, once it reached the Senate, the amendment was immediately pulled from the bill. It was so shady that state senators felt compelled to give the entire piece of legislation, all 86 pages of it, a thorough scrubbing, one of them says.

It wasn’t enough for DiMasi to have unquestioned loyalty from just his inner circle, though. He had House secretaries report back to him the names of reporters who called and asked to speak with certain members; that way, his staff could better track negative blind quotes. (It became common for some legislators to ask reporters to call their personal cell phones to discuss state business, numerous legislators and journalists say.) Ultimately, for all Tom Finneran’s micromanagement and bullying, backbenchers feared DiMasi more. “Voting off”—voting opposite the speaker—became for many Democratic politicians a nightmare on par with finding oneself naked in a calculus class at exam time. In Finneran’s last two years as speaker, House Democrats voted opposite their leader 5,334 times, according to House roll calls. When you consider that the 136 Democratic members under Finneran often cast between 700 and 900 votes in a legislative session, that’s a paltry total. But in DiMasi’s final two years, those dissenting votes got paltrier. His fellow Democrats, 141 in all, voted off 2,375 times. That’s less than half as often as under Finneran, and with five more Democrats than he had. On many votes, Democratic opposition could be counted on one hand.

It’s no wonder, then, that in June 2007, two months before the $13 million contract went to Cognos, DiMasi allegedly met with two of the company reps at a Democratic fundraiser, and assured them that all would be fine. According to an e-mail cited in the indictment, the Cognos sales agent, Joseph Lally, summed up DiMasi’s position to his boss the next day. “Sal said when he wants something done within his domain,” Lally wrote, “he is ultimately going to get what he wants.”

 

The corruption, as the prosecutors tell it, was there nearly from the beginning. Two months after ascending to the speaker’s chair, DiMasi made arrangements for his first alleged payment. He received the checks for the next two years, they say. All the while, and indeed right up until he left office, he staked out enlightened, humane positions on the House floor, often rooting his stance in moral grounds. Say this of DiMasi: He was a man who knew how to compartmentalize.

DiMasi, a defense attorney by trade, shared a law office near Downtown Crossing with another defense attorney named Steven Topazio. In December 2004, the indictment alleges, DiMasi called his officemate. He said Richard “Dickie” McDonough, a well-known lobbyist on Beacon Hill, would be calling Topazio with a new client. A few days later, McDonough met with Topazio and Joseph Lally, who was a vice president of Cognos in the company’s Burlington outpost. McDonough and Lally allegedly said they’d pay Topazio a $5,000-a-month retainer to serve as Cognos’s local counsel. Topazio said he wasn’t qualified. This was apparently not a problem, however, because McDonough and Lally never asked him to do legal work, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Instead, the indictment says, Topazio would just take the $5,000, and give $4,000 of it to DiMasi.

That’s what Topazio allegedly did: From April 2005 until the end of 2006, he took the $5,000 payment, and wrote DiMasi a $4,000 check. This happened almost every month, except for a stretch in 2006. DiMasi allegedly asked Topazio to see what had happened to the payments. A bookkeeping error at Cognos, it turned out. In December of that year, Cognos cut Topazio a check for $25,000. DiMasi said he wanted “all of it,” according to the indictment. DiMasi got what he wanted then, too.

(DiMasi says in a statement, “Every decision I made as speaker…was made in the best interests of my constituents and the people of the commonwealth.” As for Topazio, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not charged him with any wrongdoing.)

While DiMasi allegedly was receiving these “referral fees,” he carried out an ambitious legislative agenda that highlighted, of all things, compassion for the dispossessed. He passed the universal healthcare bill and killed an effort to ban gay marriage, arguably the biggest legislative acts since the state’s abolition of slavery in 1783, in his first three years as speaker. Here again, he proved he would always get his way, even if it meant meeting with every dissenting vote until the state rep emerged with a changed mind (gay marriage), or aligning the interests of unions, hospitals, insurers, and politicians in DC and promising each party that nothing would pass until everyone agreed on the particulars (universal healthcare). Yes, DiMasi worked this hard to confirm his stature and delight his ego as one of the commonwealth’s greats. But he seemed to genuinely care, too. DiMasi had tears in his eyes when the healthcare bill passed, thinking of all the people it would help. In 2007—not long after, the indictment alleges, he pushed Patrick’s staff to award the state contract to Cognos—he squashed the governor’s play for casinos by citing how blackjack tables and slot machines prey on the poor. He kept asking, “Do we need this casino culture?” What DiMasi never said publicly during the gambling debate was that, according to multiple sources close to him, his own father had been a bookie in the North End, and a decent one. Though DiMasi denies this, these sources say that, as a kid, DiMasi saw what the other side of his dad’s relative comfort wrought. He never forgot that.

This benevolence appeared in more than his legislative record, too. It was DiMasi inviting his jittery 26-year-old aide, Aaron Michelwitz, into his office, time and again in 2005, to tell him he would make a great politician once he believed in himself—and Michelwitz four years later, after DiMasi’s resignation, attaining DiMasi’s district seat as verification of his boss’s faith. It was DiMasi’s detractors begrudgingly admitting it was impossible not to enjoy the company of the big, backslapping, bullshitting North Ender. DiMasi had as many enemies as Finneran, but he will never be as despised as his predecessor, even now. Despite the bullying and all his alleged sins, “the simple truth is that he was well liked by a lot of members,” says Dan Bosley, a North Adams state rep who was one of those fans.

 


Even stranger than the righteous positions DiMasi took on social issues while allegedly accepting graft is the fact that the graft didn’t add up to that much. Not when you consider the kinds of bills he had to pay while speaker.

DiMasi’s responsibilities left little time for his law practice. In 2004, the year he ascended to the speakership, he made over $100,000 a year from his practice, but by the end of his reign, in 2008, he only pocketed between $5,000 and $10,000 annually as a lawyer, according to his statements of financial interests filed with the state. Meanwhile, his expenses were increasing. In spring 2006, DiMasi’s stepdaughter was headed for her first year at UMass and DiMasi’s stepson his first at Boston College High. Each school costs $15,000 to $20,000 a year. DiMasi was also a member of Ipswich Country Club, where new members must now pay about $8,000 in dues, according to internal club documents obtained by Boston. He had a $500,000 mortgage in the North End with second wife Debbie, a woman 19 years his junior who “had expensive tastes,” says someone who’s known DiMasi for years. On top of that, Debbie’s parents were struggling financially, as her father battled a debilitating disease from which he would die two years later. According to public records from Norfolk County, Debbie first loaned her parents $80,000 in the form of a mortgage in 2001, then bought their place in Needham outright three years later for $550,000, assuming $350,000 in outstanding debt. (In filings with the state, Debbie is listed as working at her mother’s wine shop in Newton Highlands, though it’s unknown how much she was paid.) In April 2006, Debbie refinanced the Needham house with a $417,000 adjustable-rate mortgage, according to Norfolk County records.

By mid-2006, DiMasi had allegedly received $32,000 from his Cognos friends. But that Cognos bookkeeping error kept DiMasi from receiving any more payments until December of that year, according to the indictment. That’s important. It meant that at a time when DiMasi would need more money, he would be bringing in less: The combined $153,000 in income he would report that year from his post as speaker and his law practice was nearly $20,000 less than what he’d once made as a House member and a busy attorney. Meanwhile, the big mortgage on Debbie’s parents’ house in Needham seemed to become a burden for the DiMasis. Debbie would sell it in 2007, in the last throes of the housing boom, for $50,000 less than what she paid.

Calculating his obligations against the money he had coming in and finding things uncomfortably tight, DiMasi turned to his longtime friend, golf buddy, personal accountant, and recently retained Cognos consultant, Richard Vitale. DiMasi needed a loan. Vitale, then the head of a Charlestown accounting firm, established a company called Washington North Realty Corporation, and through it on June 22, 2006, extended a $250,000 line of credit to DiMasi, which appeared in public records as a third mortgage.

Vitale would ultimately be indicted alongside DiMasi for wire and mail fraud. But the $250,000 loan seems to have nothing to do with that. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is clear on how money to DiMasi allegedly influenced legislation. But it hasn’t specified what role, if any, Vitale’s loan to DiMasi played in the Cognos deals. Indeed, a person close to DiMasi says he just needed the cash. This means that the one apparently aboveboard transaction in this whole mess—showing up in real estate records and DiMasi’s 2006 statement of financial interests and completed for the presumed purpose of putting his kids through school and helping his wife with some family debts—this one is the transaction that ends up bringing DiMasi down.

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  • Rick

    Perhaps if the state employee pension system was a bit less generous, employees would have to exhibit the same frugality the rest of us have to endure? If one knows money will never be a real problem, extreme financial leverage is probably easier to get used to.

  • Michael

    Globe did a great job, but everyone knows this was handed to the Globe with a big red bow.