State House Roundup: From The State House To The Courthouse

Salvatore DiMasi, the guy "from the neighborhood," whose jovial charm and calculated cunning propelled him to the most powerful post in Massachusetts, proved this week that he can still turn the Bay State's gaze his way.

Two years and four months removed from the speakership of the Massachusetts House, DiMasi found himself eyeball to eyeball Friday with the man he used to torment with subtle glee, the man who could, with his own charismatic gifts, influence 16 jurors the way he won over 1.1 million voters last year: Gov. Deval Patrick.

Patrick, the first governor to take the stand in nearly two decades, rarely made eye contact with his fellow Democrat and former partner in government. He answered questions succinctly and with a soft-spoken cadence. And his answers, at least for the defense table, stung.

Patrick described DiMasi's persistent attempts throughout 2007 to ensure that a pending performance management contract was on the governor's radar. The administration later awarded that contract to Cognos, the company for which DiMasi is accused of steering state contracts in exchange for kickbacks. Patrick was the linchpin in prosecutors' three-week-old effort to convict DiMasi on charges that he joined two co-defendants and sold his office to a software company looking to cash in on its connection to the most influential man in state government.

The defense, essentially, countered by arguing that there's a thin line between bribery and political contributions. Couldn't the speaker, argued DiMasi's lawyer William Cintolo, have accepted Cognos funds and advocated for the type of software Cognos supplies without actually doing it "because of" the money? Isn't it akin to the governor taking political contributions from Liberty Mutual and Dunkin' Donuts and then acting on bills affecting those companies' interests? How else to explain that DiMasi never actually asked Patrick or the myriad government officials he lobbied specifically about Cognos?

When Patrick swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth - so help him god - it capped a week of nerve-jangling, high-level testimony in the DiMasi trial, the kind of week that becomes the stuff of lore for future generations of politicos.

And for Massachusetts Democrats, their leader's appearance on the witness stand as he prepares to play a crucial role in President Obama's reelection campaign was the insulting end to a potentially injurious week - the kind of week party officials hope voters forget when they pull the lever in 18 months.

It wasn't just the uncomfortable sight of Patrick alone on the witness stand fielding questions from Cintolo, DiMasi's bulldog of a lawyer, in a case about alleged seamy, backroom horse-trading among the Beacon Hill elite. But as Patrick was gearing up to face DiMasi, Senate Democrats busied themselves cutting programs they said they believe in and trouncing a torrent of tax cuts offered by Republicans, as their largely predetermined budget exercise got underway.

In a budget debate that lasted all of two days, Senate Democrats held that, despite surging tax collections, things like permanent sales tax holidays, a deep cut in the recently raised sales tax, and a smaller reduction in the income tax would do more harm than good amid a fragile economic recovery, repeated local aid cuts and when programs for the vulnerable have already been shrunk.

Besides, they argued, if economic trends hold through the fall, Bay Staters will likely see an automatic cut in their income taxes, a 0.05 percent cut in the rate, a break that no one sounded eager to prevent.

Senate Republicans - four men strong - countered that the economic jolt delivered by tax cuts would more than offset revenue losses. They've made the argument before; Democrats are still not buying it.


Senators dispatched with their $30.5 billion budget with a stunning expediency that ensured the 40-member chamber would enjoy an extra-long Memorial Day weekend. Hill halls, frenzied during a 14-hour Thursday session, were clear on Friday. Hundreds of amendments - on gambling, immigration, welfare, nonprofit board compensation and other high-profile issues - were adopted, redrafted, and rejected with little or no explanation, leaving a mess of proposed laws to be assembled and understood.

The rapid-fire budget continued a trend set by both branches in which the bulk of policy is made in closed-door meetings among members, who rarely deviate from a planned script once they're in public view. Although the budget is the most important policy and fiscal document that state government will take on each year, members have shown increasing unwillingness to publicly defend or fight for amendment proposals that have been privately marked for the scrapheap by leaders.

Although the Senate voted, like the House, to curtail collective bargaining rights for municipal workers, not a whisper of opposition was raised among the pro-union members, and only a cursory explanation of a lengthy "technical amendment" to the plan was offered. Similarly, as the clock approached midnight - the nominal end of formal sessions - members permitted major amendments on immigration and privatization of services to pass and fail, respectively, without a hint of contention.

Between the head-turning debate on taxes and salacious sworn testimony, it was hard to remember that the leaders of both branches of the Legislature predicted passage of a bill to tackle a long stagnant issue: human trafficking.

"Human trafficking legislation is a crucial step towards protecting people from the horrors of being sold into a life of exploitation. Our primary job as elected officials is to secure the safety of folks across the Commonwealth," Speaker Robert DeLeo said in a Wednesday statement. "The upcoming legislation will do just that by helping our law enforcement officials combat the horrific practice of human trafficking."

Lawmakers also learned that their crowd-pleasing move to force public employees to work on Suffolk County holidays amounts to an unfunded mandate in the eyes of Auditor Suzanne Bump, who suggested that cities and towns would need to petition the Superior Court to be exempted from the year-old law.

And when he wasn't in court, Gov. Patrick was talking about courts, suggesting that a legislative proposal on his desk to reorganize the judiciary and reform state hiring practices failed to go far enough, namely by leaving management of the probation system with the two branches of government that had screwed it up so badly.

Unsaid by Patrick is whether he thinks those currently in charge of the Legislature and judiciary lack what it takes to make reform a reality.

LOOSE ENDS FROM COURTOOM 10: At the end of the third week of Salvatore DiMasi's trial on corruption charges, only one thing is certain: the man played a lot of golf. He golfed with lawmakers. He golfed with lobbyists. He even golfed with hockey great Derek Sanderson. China had ping-pong diplomacy; Massachusetts, under DiMasi's reign, had golf cart policymaking. That much is undisputed. He also golfed, we learned, with Joseph Lally. Lally is the Cognos salesman and admitted conspirator who DiMasi's lawyers, for the better part of the trial, have depicted as a lying untruthful dishonest untrustworthy lying liar. He's such a thieving villain, they posited, that his own business partner, Bruce Major, ditched him after just 18 months. Major testified as much on Tuesday, and was even goaded on by prosecutors to call Lally a poor partner. That's when prosecutor Kristina Barclay landed a haymaker: If Lally is so obviously a two-faced crook - whose own partner couldn't stand him after a year and a half - why, then, did lobbyist Richard McDonough, an alleged DiMasi coconspirator, stay in "business" with the guy for more than a decade? DiMasi, McDonough and accountant Richard Vitale, a trio of friends for nearly 40 years, according to various witnesses, are charged with conspiring to rig state contracts for Cognos, Lally's company, in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.

This program aired on May 27, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


More from WBUR

Listen Live