The Devil in Sal DiMasi

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |

To understand why, forget everything you know about Cognos for a moment. Now, picture the boyish grin and curly brown hair of Matt Viser, a 29-year-old State House reporter for the Globe, sitting in a tree above a prison courtyard in Florida.

This was in January 2008. The Globe had received a call from a trusted source who said Donald Trump had scheduled a round of golf with DiMasi at Trump International in West Palm Beach. The implication: During Beacon Hill’s white-hot casino debate, DiMasi, gambling’s arch-opponent, was for some reason about to spend quality time with one of its biggest beneficiaries. Viser bought a ticket for Florida that night.

But he didn’t know where DiMasi was staying. Worse, he couldn’t just watch from the road to see who was teeing off on any given hole: A perimeter of greenery guarded the course, making peeping difficult. Hence his perch by the penitentiary. It was located behind the course, at a remove from the road. Viser climbed a tree on the other side of the prison courtyard and from that vantage point could see the course. Well, part of the course. Actually more like a tee box. Definitely a tee box.

Viser stayed there for the next day and a half, waiting, with a freelance photographer, for Trump and DiMasi to appear in their tiny window of parted foliage. They never did. The source later told the Globe that DiMasi had been tipped off. Dave Guarino, DiMasi’s spokesman, says DiMasi was never scheduled to play. Either way, this was how vigorously the Globe pursued its leads on DiMasi: to a tree above a prison courtyard in West Palm Beach, waiting for the speaker to appear alongside a reality-show star.

And that’s instructive. Because none of what’s happened in the past 16 months, not the eight counts in the federal indictment; or the State Ethics Commission investigation of DiMasi; or the exhortations of Secretary of State Bill Galvin, demanding the power to subpoena Richard Vitale for failing to register as a lobbyist; not Attorney General Martha Coakley’s indictment of Vitale for the same reason; or her claim that Vitale, in another instance, promoted legislation on behalf of his ticket-broker-association clients that the House then adopted; and certainly none of DiMasi’s denials of wrongdoing during all this time—none of it would have happened had the Globe not found out about DiMasi’s $250,000 loan from Vitale. Because to the paper, that looked an awful lot like quid pro quo.

Before the Globe published the loan story, the public knew that Inspector General Greg Sullivan had written a scathing report saying the state hadn’t proved Cognos to be the best value for its money. The report didn’t name DiMasi, Vitale, McDonough, or Lally; the IG just said something about the contract looked funky. A few days later, the Globe reported that DiMasi seemed to have his fingerprints on the Cognos deal, but the loan story itself, published April 27, 2008, widened the inquiry. It said that DiMasi had a friend named Richard Vitale who was blabbing to ticket brokers in Massachusetts, telling them that if they met his fee, he could "do things a registered lobbyist couldn’t do—behind the scenes." The man had, as the reporters noted, loaned his friend Sal DiMasi $250,000. 

With that, the Globe had a motive: DiMasi seemed to be personally benefiting from an associate whose name was linked to legislation under scrutiny. "That’s when I said, ‘Let’s go with a double-barreled gun,’" says Globe deputy managing editor Brian McGrory.

On the piece about the Vitale loan, Globe State House reporter Andrea Estes shared a byline with Stephen Kurkjian, a semiretired reporter from the paper’s famed Spotlight team who had won Pulitzers in three decades. The two took different approaches. Kurkjian is of the old school, banging on as many doors as he can, more or less demanding information. He is chummy with McGrory, and several in the Globe newsroom believe the lead character in McGrory’s novels, reporter Jack Flynn, is Kurkjian: a hard-nosed, take-no-BS excavator of buried truths. Older politicians and political consultants saw Kurkjian’s name on the loan story and thought, as one such consultant put it, "The Globe isn’t fucking around anymore."

But that disparages Estes. She was just as tenacious as Kurkjian but far more methodical. She thought of the implications of every call she made: not only what that person knew, but also who, in the era of DiMasi’s House secretaries, that person might discuss their conversation with afterward. As the stories progressed, 36 in all, Estes, a 20-year Hub newsroom veteran, lost sleep at night thinking about DiMasi, as she took more of a lead and came to own the story. The irony is that the loan led the Globe everywhere but to irrefutable evidence that the loan itself was dirty. Of course, the paper hardly needs that anymore.

  • 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.