The Hill and the Hall Week in Review

Each Friday, Paul McMorrow will take you inside the smoke-filled rooms and darkly-lit corridors of government to bring you the hottest and juiciest political tidbits. This week: Palace intrigue in the House of King Sal leads to a surprising conspirator. Et tu, Petrolati?

If Gov. Deval Patrick has learned anything from his time in the corner office, it’s that reporters love scandal and whiffs of impropriety. Backstabbing? Ego politics? Personal humiliation? Yes, please!

Patrick seemed to have a hard time adjusting to this scavenger mentality last year. He appeared bewildered at the media’s willingness to subject him to endless rounds of questions about the beatings he was taking from House Speaker Sal DiMasi. He clearly thought there were more important things happening in the building, and couldn’t fathom why we didn’t get that, too. Doesn’t the Beacon Hill press corps – or, for that matter, the suits they write about – do anything other than bleed their idols and leave them for dead?

Not really.

Patrick is now witnessing this phenomenon from a much more comfortable position. While he’s off saving public education and spreading the gospelof clean energy, DiMasi, the man who savaged his beloved casino plan, suddenly finds himself on the wrong end of the politics as bloodsport motif.

Even worse, some of his closest friends in the House are reportedly leading the effort to topple him.

DiMasi just endured his single worst week since seizing the speakership nearly four years ago. A Sunday Globe story dropped a bomb about how a friend, and unregistered lobbyist, might have funneled a sack of illegal cash into the speaker’s pocket. It inspired some halfhearted mockery from Howie Carr, as these things tend to do.

There followed a GOP-initiated ethics investigation and a merciless Joan Vennochi column; the former was enough to incite at least the third all-out scramble to inherit Sal’s not-yet-open seat in six months. The first two rounds of jockeying were fueledby rumors that DiMasi was going to pull a Travand bolt for a lucrative lobbying post. DiMasi appeared to put them to rest, and we’ve already passed the latest rumored date he was supposed to have left office, so that should’ve been the end of that.

But Sunday’s story involves real money and, thus, the potential for a serious scandal. It chummed the waters of ambition, with speculation that Sal will follow in the steps of King Tom and Good Time Charlie Flaherty and re-ignited the frantic scramble to line up votes behind a candidate to succeed DiMasi. Should a successor be needed, of course.

DiMasi has expressly forbidden such vote-wrangling, and even hinted that he’ll soon execute a House leader or two to keep his troops in line. (It’s a fine line to walk. A power struggle that led to a leadership demotion more than 20 years ago led to an open revolt that toppled the sitting speaker, Tom McGee, and helped bring one Sal DiMasi into leadership.)

But the head-counting has actually accelerated in the face of DiMasi’s threats – a clear sign of the speaker’s tenuous position. Even more shocking than the maneuvering to replace a guy who says he’s not going anywhere, are the identities of the pols leading the charge.

Back in January, when DiMasi threatened to discipline John Rogers for vote-counting, the hot rumor inside the State House was that the “House leadership sources” the story cited included anti-Rogers members of DiMasi’s inner circle. The theory was that, if Sal’s Pals could draw Rogers (a Finneran guy) into a fatal confrontation, it would pave the way for their own hand-picked candidate to eventually succeed DiMasi.

One of the names the Hill and the Hall heard was advancing those Rogers rumors is the same name that had tried to rally support around Ron Mariano last summer. It was the same name that was reportedly acting as a key organizer for Ways and Means Chairman Bob DeLeo during the December-January flare-up.

And, a House source says, this same Rep is currently helping lead a “highly aggressive” campaign to line up votes behind DeLeo, against DiMasi’s direct orders.

It’s Sal’s top lieutenant, Thomas Petrolati.

“Petrolati has been heavily involved in pushing DeLeo,” this source says, and the pace of the vote-gathering has increased every day this week. “They’re literally dragging people into offices to really hammer away at them.” The DeLeo team, reportedly well behind Rogers in votes, is said to be promising reps line items in the budget in exchange for support. “They’re running around, trying to knuckle people into signing up in exchange for money for their districts.” That may explain the glut of porky line items being duct-taped to this supposedly austere budget.

James Vallee and Charlie Murphy, whose phantom vote from St. Croix helped instigate the current wave of anti-DiMasi sentiment, are also said to be helping steer DeLeo’s effort. But it’s Petrolati’s name, given his closeness to the speaker, and his role in helping push Finneran out the door, that’s really raising eyebrows on Beacon Hill. The word “apoplectic” has been used to describe DiMasi’s reaction to the campaigning. And that might be kind.

DiMasi, Petrolati and DeLeo are the House. More than anyone else, they steer the flow of information and legislation in the body. Rogers may be Majority Leader, but these two are Sal’s guys. They’re the ones that really matter. They’re the ones who were the trigger men on all the supposedly dirty bills helping drag Sal down now. And here they are, reportedly digging the guy’s grave before he’s even dead.

The mentality at play here is half prisoner’s dilemma, half bank-run mob mentality. It’s in Sal’s Pals interest to stay true to their buddies, but when they thought they had to choose between their own careers and loyalty to the speaker, they chose themselves. How to tell when to jump ship? It’s not the most exacting of sciences but… look around, and if everybody else is running for the life boats, you’d better do the same.

The lesson Sal’s learning this week: In this state, your friends are only your friends as long as you’re of use to them. And if it looks like you might sink, they’ll be the first to throw you overboard.