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State House Roundup: Courtroom 10

This article is more than 8 years old.

Like an exposed power line, crackling, flailing and threatening to scorch anything it touches, participants in the trial of former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi this week sought to torch any doubts about the way deals get done under the dome.

Whether DiMasi did anything illegal is up to a jury, but it was the rare moments of agreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys that were often the most jarring: If you want to win the speaker’s ear, no matter how worthy the cause, hiring a well-connected lobbyist is a must. If the speaker wants something in the budget, it will appear in the budget – or in a bond bill, or in a supplemental spending bill – Ways and Means Committee be damned.

Truisms, perhaps, but typically the unspoken kind.

Few would question that the real-world ramifications of the secrets being unearthed during the DiMasi trial hang over Beacon Hill denizens like a sword of Damocles. But it was a visit to the hill by onetime uber-lobbyist Dickie McDonough that crystallized that dynamic.

McDonough, a codefendant in the same corruption trial and Salvatore DiMasi’s “best friend,” according to at least one witness, departed the courtroom Tuesday for a hearing room at the State House, where he glad-handed with veteran lawmakers, who treated him much the way they treat most lobbyists – with smiles, handshakes and backslapping good humor.

He was there on behalf of Anheuser-Busch, one of his two remaining clients, seeking favorable treatment from the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. But the juxtaposition of his hunched and silent presence in a courtroom in which his freedom is on the line, with his unburdened schmoozing among ranking legislators showcased the unshakeable power of insiderdom.

No one came out of the first full week of the trial unscathed.

DiMasi, McDonough and alleged cohort Richard Vitale – charged with conspiring to defraud taxpayers in exchange for kickbacks from Cognos Corp., a favored software company – sat by as lurid details about their alleged dealings escaped the lips of witnesses they once counted as close allies. A fourth codefendant, Cognos executive Joseph Lally, has already pled guilty in the scheme and been ravaged by a defense dream team – William Cintolo, Thomas Kiley, Thomas Drechsler and Martin Weinberg – as a “degenerate gambler” and a desperate liar fighting to avoid jail time.

The first two witnesses – Cognos sales manager Christopher Quinter and DiMasi’s former law associate Steven Topazio – both signed immunity deals as a precondition for their cooperation. Quinter acknowledged during testimony taking more than $10,000 in compensation from Lally that he never reported as income. And it came out Thursday that Topazio may be the subject of an ongoing Board of Bar Overseers investigation for his efforts to protect DiMasi, as the speaker’s role in helping Cognos secure $17.5 million in state contracts piqued the curiosity of the Boston Globe in 2008.

Topazio also acknowledged collecting $125,000 from Cognos from a consulting contract for which he performed no actual work, transmitting $65,000 of it to DiMasi but keeping $60,000 for himself.

Lida Harkins, the former Democratic state rep from Needham who served as DiMasi’s majority whip, fared best, but even she evidenced a surprising memory lapse when it came to the timeframe in question. She couldn’t recall, for example, what year DiMasi was elected speaker – 2004 – and she had no memory of when he might have first asked her to pursue education software of the type produced by Cognos. Prosecutors showed her documents with dates, but it did little to refresh her recollection.

Harkins, interestingly enough, has been hired as a “reprecincting” specialist by Secretary of State William Galvin because of her institutional memory: she served on the House redistricting committee in 2001 and came into the House in 1991, the last time the state lost a Congressional seat.

Under plans unveiled this week by Fair Districts Mass – chaired by Jack E. Robinson and represented by Rep. Daniel Winslow (R-Norfolk) as legal counsel – incumbent Congressmen would be squeezed into the same districts and Democratic strongholds like Lawrence and New Bedford would be carved up in ways that would create political uncertainty in districts that have been comfortably blue for decades.

The maps are largely meant to put the group’s priorities on record, should a legislatively drawn political map end up in court, as even one co-chair of the Redistricting Committee views as inevitable.

“Unless we use their map, they’re suing us,” Rep. Michael Moran (D-Brighton) told the News Service last month. In its budget, the House approved a plan to provide redistricting committee members with access to the state’s Central Voter Registry, which Moran said at the time would be used to strengthen the committee’s case if it gets accused of racial imbalance.

“If you know that a certain area is majority-minority area and it acts that way in its voting, then that further strengthens your case when we get sued by Dan Winslow’s group, it further strengthens our case with regard to how we drew the racial makeup of districts,” Moran said.

Legislative debate was almost an afterthought this week, as the House and Senate catapulted an $85 million spending bill to the governor’s desk, in part to fund a public defender program that lawmakers warned was days away from going “out of business” – despite being aware of the looming shortfall for more than a month. Despite a brief hiccup over a senator’s plan to reduce the number of required racing days at Suffolk Downs, the House scrapped the effort and the bill was whisked to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk with no perceptible opposition.

Similarly, the House unanimously endorsed Speaker Robert DeLeo’s plan to turn the page on patronage in the state’s hiring system, forcing all agencies to store any written recommendations for job candidates and make public recommendations for those who are ultimately hired.

Unanimity – or something close to it – has been the emergent theme in the first five months of the legislative session. Despite a crop of young freshmen, including 20 new Republicans who swept into the House with guns blazing, votes have remained few and lopsided on most major issues and debate has been sparse, with Republicans almost as likely to join Democrats on major issues as to detract. Whether that means DeLeo is not forcing the action or Republicans are laying low is an open question.

A special election Tuesday served as a reminder that anti-incumbent sentiment lingers, at least in the central part of the state, where Republicans showcased disproportionate political power in the most recent cycle. In the 6th Worcester District, Republican Peter Durant successfully unseated Democrat Geraldo Alicea, winning by a 56-vote margin that only appeared decisive because the two men fought each other to a tie last November. Durant increases Republican ranks to a slightly less irrelevant 32, exactly one-fourth the size of the House Democratic caucus.

There’s a silver lining for Dems, however, in the continued uncertainty for incumbents, because the officeholder with the biggest target on his back – Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown – learned this week that he’ll have a new challenger: Newton Mayor Setti Warren.

Warren’s emergence as a Senate candidate – foreshadowed for at least six months by his obvious profile-heightening activity – drew a torrent of media coverage only surprising because the other two notable candidates in the race, non-office holders Alan Khazei and Bob Massie, were largely treated like warmed-over retreads. For that reason and others, Warren is increasingly looking like an establishment candidate. He’s got an in with John Kerry, Gov. Deval Patrick has heaped praise on him, and the GOP has reserved its sharpest attacks for the first-term mayor.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Blank stares from the jury box.

POLITICAL TEA LEAVES: Just five months into a new term, House brass caballed on Wednesday in an Omni Parker House function room to discuss the political climate and lay the groundwork for the 2012 election season. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, joined by his leadership team – including Majority Whip Charles Murphy, Second Assistant Majority Leader Kathi-Anne Reinstein, Health Care Financing Committee co-chair Steve Walsh and Assistant Vice Chair of the Ways and Means Committee Martha Walz – discussed the flak some members have been taking over their votes on municipal health care, the speaker’s planned fundraiser scheduled for June 21, and took the temperature of various hot-button issues that lawmakers were seeing in their districts.

This program aired on May 13, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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