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.

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.

 


The coverage bothered him. DiMasi tried not to let on in the halls of the State House, but on at least one occasion last summer, back in his office, he pulled aside staff members and asked, “Why is the Globe picking on me?”

It was more than just the Globe by that point. The men whose political careers he made, DeLeo and Petrolati, betrayed him, openly orchestrating his succession, even as DiMasi was saying he wasn’t giving up his seat. In his 30 years in office, he had never seen anything like the corrosive battle DeLeo and DiMasi’s old foe John Rogers were waging, with Petrolati serving as DeLeo’s chief campaigner. As time progressed, the two grew only more brazen. From July on, Petrolati quit showing up to the regular leadership meetings in the speaker’s office, two people close to DiMasi say. In November, DeLeo hosted a fundraiser at a steakhouse in Worcester, trumpeting to the media that he had the votes to become the next speaker.

By this point, a graceful exit did not exist for DiMasi. But he wasn’t seeking one. DiMasi wanted to show his reputation could withstand any attack, from all quarters: from assistant attorneys general, the media, his own leadership team. He wanted to accomplish more, too, put his name all over transportation reform, just as he had with universal healthcare and gay marriage. Last fall, he proposed a gas tax to do it, which the governor championed and, in the end, and far more improbably, a group of business leaders as well. DiMasi wanted it known—he wanted the record to reflect—that he was still the man. It did. He was reelected 135–25 this January.

But perhaps DiMasi also stayed in because he’d evaded other scrapes before. In 1993, the Globe blasted him for questionable interactions with lobbyists after he had traveled to Puerto Rico, ostensibly for a legislative conference, but really, according to the paper, so lobbyists could pay for his meals and greens fees. (DiMasi wasn’t the only one fingered: Eight politicians were down there, including Senate President Billy Bulger, and House Speaker Charlie Flaherty.) The State Ethics Commission launched an investigation of DiMasi, requesting records of the Puerto Rico trip and other times he’d hobnobbed with lobbyists going back to 1987, the Herald reported. DiMasi refused to cooperate. A court battle ensued, and Superior Court Judge Regina Quinlan ruled in 1993 to limit the commission’s subpoena power. The case eventually went away. If DiMasi’s actions last year are any indication, he thought the same thing would happen this time around.

 

On January 22, 2009, he realized he was wrong. The Globe that day published its latest scoop, saying Vitale had paid off a $7,500 legal debt for Debbie DiMasi’s parents in September 2007.

People close to DiMasi say that certainly weighed on him, to have his widowed mother-in-law dragged into his battle. The next afternoon, around 1 p.m., DiMasi, his wife, and his core staff met in the office of DiMasi’s political action committee, which looks out on Tremont Street near the Common. Maryann Calia, his chief of staff, told DiMasi he must stick it out. Guarino, his press secretary, agreed but said if DiMasi were to stay in, the stories would not cease, at least not in the short term; it might take three to four years of spotless governance for him to clear his name. Jason Aluia, his legislative director, looked to Debbie DiMasi to see how she’d respond. He had long thought that if Debbie were fed up with the headlines, then that would be it for Sal. But Debbie turned to her husband and said, “Don’t let those bastards win.”

The meeting went on for a couple of hours. DiMasi’s glances around the room seemed to look past the people in it. It was the same look a Rogers supporter had seen a few weeks earlier in the House chamber. DiMasi appeared defeated then—his shoulders slumped, his pace slow—and didn’t look any better off now. He had been sick the past couple of weeks. He hadn’t slept well in months.
It wasn’t fun anymore. There was his legal team, always telling DiMasi that the longer he stayed in, the more interested the AG and feds became in his indictment. There were the dozens of House committee chairs and vice chairs he had to appoint for his new term. If he stayed on through the budget, and then left, his successor would banish to the back benches most if not all of DiMasi’s people for their fealty to the old boss. DiMasi had certainly done the same.

Two days later, the word went out: “I’m resigning.”

After his resignation speech on January 27, DiMasi and three dozen close friends rented out the second floor of Abe & Louie’s on Boylston Street. The idea was to throw a roast. That’s what happened when someone left DiMasi’s staff. Instead, the dinner broke out into desperate sobs and purple speeches. DiMasi—you could see it in his eyes, that same distant stare—looked as if he wanted to be somewhere else.

Over the next five months, in what can be viewed as DiMasi’s time in purgatory, he told people that he was practicing law, though he’d long since stopped showing up to the office he shared with Steven Topazio at 10 Winthrop Square, according to a secretary there. Guarino says DiMasi started a consulting business, taking on healthcare and green-energy clients across the country. But DiMasi hasn’t registered as a lobbyist with either the U.S. House or U.S. Senate, according to clerks in those chambers. Over the spring, DiMasi mostly stayed home.

You could ring his doorbell on a random Tuesday at noon, and DiMasi would answer. He wouldn’t invite you in: He was a private citizen now, far more private than Tom Finneran had been when he was forced to resign as speaker. DiMasi would just say over the intercom that he was “doing fine.” Maybe he was. Despite all the trouble his friend had caused, DiMasi still called Dick Vitale often. They talked about their families. They talked about golf. They both had their memberships at Ipswich County Club. They planned to play a lot this summer.

 

Paul Kix is a senior editor at Boston.

ADVERTISMENT

  • 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.