The Devil in Sal DiMasi

DiMasi never had any qualms about his decision to oust Rogers from leadership. He and his staff swear there was no deal, only an informal understanding that DiMasi would be speaker first. Still, the move to put in Petrolati was part of a larger strategy.

DiMasi picked his lieutenants for their loyalty. Petrolati, or Petro, as he is commonly known, may have been the best example. A short man with slicked-back hair and a closet full of natty suits, he was a purely political animal under DiMasi, not at all keen on policy. He whispered about DiMasi’s omnipotence to fellow members, and what folly it would be to challenge that before the full House, or in a caucus, or ever, really. Notice would be paid, and perhaps, as in the case of former Arlington state Representative Jim Marzilli, who dared to author an energy bill without DiMasi’s approval, a title of vice chairman stripped.

Other members expressed their loyalty in other ways. Take Bob DeLeo, the current speaker. He was chairman of Third Reading, the committee charged with ensuring proper grammar in every bill, when DiMasi assigned him in 2005 to be head of Ways and Means, the most important chair in the House. “Those of us who have watched him as a friend,” says Josh Resnek of the Winthrop Transcript, who’s known DeLeo for 30 years, “can’t help but say he was the quintessential backbencher.” Before DiMasi tapped him, DeLeo was mulling a departure from the legislature to become a district or state judge, a person close to him says. But DiMasi saw an ally who would live by old codes: The two men came from nearby, clannish Italian neighborhoods, places where fealty was valued.

As Ways and Means chair, DeLeo was the rep who introduced a bond bill in March 2007 that contained a provision for one of the now-infamous software contracts that have DiMasi in all this trouble. The opaquely worded amendment required the state to find a firm that would provide a “performance management system” for $15 million. The firm DiMasi wanted, the federal indictment alleges, was the Canadian company Cognos. The indictment further alleges DiMasi wanted Cognos to get this contract because he had been paid—through the help of a Cognos lobbyist, a Cognos consultant, a Cognos sales agent, and a lawyer on Cognos’s payroll—an average of $4,000 a month by the company between 2005 and early 2007.

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.”

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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.