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Learning of his indictment on federal corruption charges Tuesday, Salvatore DiMasi had come to the federal courthouse with his lawyers and his wife in the early afternoon to turn himself in. Just before he made his appearance in the fifth-floor federal courtroom, the marshals slipped his handcuffs off.
With his head down, avoiding eye contact with everyone, including his wife, DiMasi entered a far different atmosphere than the chambers on Beacon Hill, where he’d been acclaimed and overwhelmingly elected speaker of the House back in January, after being nominated by his fellow Democrats.
Genial and well-mannered, progressive and popular with his members, DiMasi orchestrated that show of his command of loyalty in the House at the start of January. But the speaker was powerless to stop the run of stories raising ethical questions about apparent deals that benefited his friends and himself. And he was powerless to stop the federal investigation which led to Tuesday’s indictment on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud.
Before the court appearance, acting U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks detailed the alleged scheme by which DiMasi received $57,000 in payments from a Canadian software company, Cognos ULC, in return for using his office and legislative power to ensure the company won state contracts of $4.5 million and $15 million.
"The flow of money is specifically chronicled in the indictment, typically the attorney received a $5,000 check from Cognos, and within a couple of days, sent $4,000 of it to DiMasi by check," Loucks said.
The company allegedly funneled its payments to DiMasi through an attorney unnamed in the indictment, but previously identified by the state inspector general as DiMasi’s law associate, Steven Topazio. The associate, now a cooperating witness for the government, said Cognos hired him as counsel even though he had no experience in such corporate representation.
"After telling DiMasi about the meeting," Loucks went on, "DiMasi said, 'It's about time we got business like this.' "
Beginning in April 2005, according to the indictment, the associate attorney sent the bulk of each payment from Cognos to DiMasi. And when DiMasi got one check for $25,000, he instructed his associate to write four backdated checks instead, to further disguise the payments as typical referral fees.
With his brief appearance in U.S. District Court in Boston on Tuesday, DiMasi became the third speaker of the House in a row to be indicted on federal felony charges. Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse following his arraignment, he said, "Every decision that I have ever made as the speaker or as a state representative was always made in the best interest of my constituents and of the people of the commonwealth of Massachusetts."
DiMasi answered no questions, and left the rest to his attorney — who answered no questions. His descent from arguably the most powerful position in the Statehouse began a year and a month ago.
The Boston Globe had reported, for instance, that DiMasi had gotten a third mortgage on his North End home for below-market rates from his personal accountant and former campaign manager Richard Vitale. The paper reported that Vitale was selling his influence with the speaker and was engaged in secret and unregistered lobbying.
That was May of last year. The speaker wasn’t talking. And the speaker dug in politically as rumors circled the Statehouse and would-be successors started positioning themselves to replace him, as they had when the last two speakers of the House ran into ethical problems, newspaper probes and, ultimately, federal indictments.
In December, DiMasi’s friend and associate Richard Vitale was indicted and charged in state court with illegal lobbying. That same month, the Boston Globe reported that a federal grand jury was investigating DiMasi and three associates for large payments they had received from Cognos.
The first Italian-American speaker of the House in state history, first elected in 1979, universally called Sal in the Statehouse — my pal Sal in the North End — DiMasi would not yield to newspaper accounts. In January, he staged a public show of affection at the normally closed-door caucus, and was elected speaker.
Sitting nearby on the podium as he was sworn in that day were the last two speakers, who had both pled guilty to federal felonies — foreshadowing Tuesday.
A month later, in February, DiMasi resigned, saying he was leaving with his head held high.
"Sometimes in this job, you didn't think you had a lot of friends," he said in his resignation announcement before his House colleagues. "I told you I was so proud to know that so many people were so supportive."
With him yesterday were three of his friends, including Richard Vitale. The four will be arraigned later this month.
This program aired on June 3, 2009.
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