The Devil in Sal DiMasi
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.