BOSTON — A longtime law associate of former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi testified Thursday that DiMasi wanted him to cover up payments from a software company that was trying to win almost $20 million in state contracts.
Attorney Steven Topazio has testified the company Cognos paid him thousands of dollars and that he sent $65,000 of that to DiMasi. Federal prosecutors allege these were kickbacks.
When testimony ran out on Wednesday, it was 2006. Topazio was a personal injuries and criminal defense attorney, hired by Cognos to do contract law he wasn’t used to doing, involving software technology he didn’t understand, for a company that never asked him to do anything.
No matter — Cognos was paying him $5,000 a month and they kept renewing the contract. And Topazio kept paying DiMasi $4,000 a month.
If it sounds like money for nothing, the kicks are free, the defense had a different spin Thursday. Attorney William Cintolo calls it “a retainer.” “It’s like the bench player on a basketball team,” Cintolo said, “You might never be called upon to play, but you sit there all the time and they pay you for sitting there.”
Just “be ready, willing, and able,” Topazio said DiMasi had coached him. “Everything should be fine.”
Then in late December 2006, Cognos sent Topazio, who was still on the bench, $25,000 in back pay.
“Sal wanted it all — he said I owed him $25,000,” Topazio testified.
They argued. Deciding, “I wasn’t going to bite the hand that fed me,” Topazio wrote DiMasi a check for $25,000. But DiMasi came back and said he didn’t want it all in one check, according to Topazio, he wanted it broken down into four checks and backdated.
“I asked him why, and he didn’t answer me,” Topazio said. “He said, ‘that’s the way I want it.’”
But why? The question went unanswered. Yet the government’s insinuation is DiMasi was covering his tracks, because these were bribes funneled to him through the unwitting Topazio.
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Prosecutor Theodore Merritt bore in on his own witness, Topazio.
Do you know that one of the rules governing lawyers is that, “You can’t knowingly take a fee for not doing any work?”
“Yes,” Topazio said.
Outside the courthouse, Topazio wouldn’t respond.
“Can you leave this courthouse and say you think you did nothing wrong? Can you say that?” I asked him.
“How can you practice in this town if you’re not going to say whether you thought you did the right thing here as a practicing attorney?”
Only Topazio’s lawyer — Frank Corso — would respond.
“We’d refer you to the transcript of the trial where Mr. Topazio gave his truthful testimony,” Corso said.
On the stand, Topazio had started changing his testimony, softening it toward his former mentor. But the damage to the main defendant seemed substantial.
In 2008, when a Boston Globe reporter started asking questions about whether money from Cognos was going to DiMasi, Topazio “minced” his words, to protect Sal, he testified. He met with DiMasi to show him that Cognos consulting contract he’d originally signed.
“He wanted to know why I signed it. This is the contract you told me to sign two years ago,” Topazio said.
Topazio said he pulled out the record of the $25,000 he’d paid DiMasi.
“He said he didn’t get all that. I said, ‘You did,’ and I pointed out the four consecutive checks.”
When Topazio mentioned that he’d lost the first half of his check register, he said DiMasi responded, “Well, it would be nice if you lost the other half.”
Topazio said DiMasi was asking him not to make any reference to Cognos in his check register and, “I wasn’t going to do that.”
When DiMasi told Topazio Cognos wasn’t his client, Topazio said he shot back, “How can you say Cognos is not your client. Your best friend Dicky McDonough gave me the referral.”
Now came the defense in a rush to lessen the sting.
Cintolo cross-examined Topazio, who seemed agreeable, saying DiMasi never ordered him to do anything.
“He was specifically asked whether or not, when certain statements were made, whether or not he took them as serious, whether he took them as being a directive or a command, and he indicated that he did not,” Cintolo said outside of the courtroom. “He thought they were said sarcastically. And that’s what he testified to.”
For Topazio, likened to the basketball player paid to sit on the bench, came this from the prosecution, near the end of questioning: “Did you ever get any other client referred to you by Mr. DiMasi for whom you did no work?”
“No,” Topazio replied.
Topazio was through testifying, but may face questions from the Board of Bar Overseers.
For DiMasi, the trial resumes on Monday.