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State House Roundup: Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

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Evidence that one man’s poison is another woman’s salve came this week in the form of a press release issued by Senate President Therese Murray, declaring – with un-ironic triumph – that the Senate had, at long last, implemented “performance management.”

In a political environment of extremely managed performances, performance management – an amorphous and generally innocuous business buzzword that indicates a system of metrics to gauge the effectiveness of policies and programs – has, like bailouts and stimulus packages before it, become a dirty word on Beacon Hill, synonymous with alleged political malfeasance thanks to the former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi’s covert crusade to purchase “performance management” software in 2007.

DiMasi’s trial on corruption charges, largely stemming from his alleged role in the state’s procurement of a performance management contract with Cognos Corp., a Canadian software company, reached an unexpectedly abrupt coda this week, with the defense team mounting a brief, targeted three-day rebuttal following four relentless weeks of elaborate presentations by prosecutors.

DiMasi’s liberty, as well as that of his two friends and co-defendants, lobbyist Richard McDonough and accountant Richard Vitale, will soon rest with a 16-member jury of their peers, novices with respect to the convoluted legislative process that they’ve been asked to dissect and judge.

DiMasi and his defense team, of course, deny any criminal intent, insisting that DiMasi’s pursuit of performance management – however quiet he kept it – was part of a voracious will to improve the efficiency and functionality of government. The byproduct of his push was a $13 million state contract that was awarded to Cognos in 2007 to equip all of state government with software that would help the Patrick administration and lawmakers alike monitor expensive, caseload-driven programs like Medicaid.

Defense lawyers say the story ends there for DiMasi, but prosecutors say the speaker worked feverishly on Cognos’s behalf in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks for himself, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to his friends. After authorities raised questions about the contract in 2008, it was rescinded.

Over the past four weeks, prosecutors’ vilification of DiMasi’s actions has effectively transformed performance management into a symbol of corruption, graft and excess as they meticulously crafted a narrative in which DiMasi, suffering from a sharply reduced income from his private law practice, desperately turned to his friends and colleagues for alternative sources of income. Milking Cognos for kickbacks in exchange for a lucrative performance management contract, prosecutors say, was his meal ticket.

On Friday, jurors were caressed by the dulcet, throaty tones of Martin Weinberg (Vitale’s lawyer), shaken on the shoulders by the shrill sarcasm of Thomas Drechsler (McDonough’s lawyer), and cowed by the are-you-lookin’-at-me brashness of William Cintolo (DiMasi’s lawyer) – a defense team so deep its bench may include Alan Dershowitz – as they made their last pitches on behalf of the three allege conspirators.

Cintolo argued that the prosecution failed to meet its burden of proving “beyond a reasonable doubt” that DiMasi committed a crime. “In this courtroom, it’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt-ish. It’s not, not guilty-ish,” he said.

Prosecutors relied on the deliberate, even-tempered and largely chronological presentation by assistant U.S. attorney Anthony Fuller, who urged jurors to deliver a verdict based on “common sense.” DiMasi received Cognos payments, they said, and then evidence shows that funding was approved at DiMasi’s urging that led to Cognos winning a pair of state deals.

Although her colleagues have, of late, had one eye on the courthouse and one eye on the State House, Murray unapologetically pursued the concept of performance management Thursday, peppering the phrase throughout a bill to overhaul decades-old state finance laws, force the governor to build budgets from scratch, and generally require “government to use data to regularly evaluate the productivity, successes and failures of agencies and programs.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Deval Patrick began dishing out wads of political capital he accrued and stashed away after his reelection last year, giving credence to claims that his second term will be his last – perhaps in any elected office.

Sure, Patrick kept up the frenetic pace of a campaign, dashing from Boston to Worcester to Marshfield and back again on Monday, and leaving a trail of grants, groundbreakings and good will in Worcester, Gardner, Fitchburg, Turners Falls, Greenfield, Springfield, and West Springfield.

But as he crisscrossed the commonwealth, Patrick left it to his staff to reveal a string of announcements that would’ve been unthinkable in the heat of a hard-fought campaign.

First, the administration announced that Patrick would scrap an already-tortured effort to join Secure Communities, a politically popular, if misunderstood federal program – loathed among immigrant advocates – that he may or may not be forced by the Obama administration to join anyway.

Then, Patrick – unaware that he was about to suffer his first-ever rejection from an increasingly unpredictable Governor’s Council – nominated a low-profile fourth-term Democratic state representative, Christopher Speranzo of Pittsfield, to a lifetime post as clerk magistrate in Pittsfield District Court, a move that would’ve probably been off-limits in an election year, particularly given Patrick’s checkered history of pushing lawmakers for high-paying posts – regardless of merit.

Speranzo will face a Governor’s Council that nearly derailed the judicial candidacy of a state rep’s wife because of her political connections, despite decades of experience as a prosecutor. The council on Wednesday dealt Patrick a blow by scuttling the renomination of John Bocon to the Parole Board. Bocon, a retired federal probation officer who had won council approval to an abbreviated term in March, irked councilors by refusing to disclose his pension. It was enough to turn a pair of reliable yes-votes for Patrick’s nominees – Councilors Christopher Iannella and Kelly Timilty – against his nomination.

As if flouting illegal immigration hardliners and putting anti-patronage zealots on high alert wasn’t enough, Patrick, through his staff, announced 3 percent raises for his administration’s 4,000 managers, a move brazen for its proximity to budget negotiations that lawmakers have warned will certainly result in local aid cuts and devastating retreats in programs for the poor, sick and vulnerable. Those managers have, assuredly, taken salary hits throughout the recession and will still have taken a net reduction should they accept the raises, according to administration officials.

For Patrick, decisions with political downsides are probably a little easier to make after his re-election, while he’s receiving good grades for tornado relief efforts and with his poll numbers rebounding.

Public Policy Polling released survey results this week that showed Patrick would widen his lead over 2010 opponent Charlie Baker by 16 points if the election were done over again, winning 54-32, rather than his actual 48-42 spread last year. PPP also found Patrick’s approval/disapproval at 54/36, up from 45/45 last November, which the firm said made him the 11th or 12th most popular governor out of 39 currently serving governors on which the company has polled since January 2010.

The same polling firm, after surveying 957 Massachusetts voters this month, found the Democrat coming closest to beating Sen. Scott Brown in a hypothetical matchup is none other than Brown’s 2010 opponent Attorney General Martha Coakley, who trailed Brown by 9 points rather than the 10 to 20-point spreads Brown holds over other potential rivals – Congressmen Michael Capuano and Ed Markey were only 10 points back. Note to Brown: most of your rivals are in the same longshot position you were in when you ran and your next election is not a special, it’s a general one with President Obama topping the ticket.

All of which led to this blog post from Tom Jenson of PPP, a Democratic polling firm: “It really would be in the best interest of Democrats if [Gov. Patrick] rethought his decision not to run for the Senate next year. With the Democratic field so unsettled and no field clearing candidates in the race or likely to join it any time soon, Patrick really has months to change his mind and run a perfectly viable campaign. We didn't test him head to head against Scott Brown on this poll, but his approval numbers are better than Brown's and although my guess is that the incumbent would still lead in a head to head I think it would be pretty close.”

For the record, Patrick says he’s not interested.

The House laid low this week, with Speaker Robert DeLeo huddling with his leadership team to sketch an agenda – now that most of the speaker’s agenda, unveiled in January, has nearly been adopted: municipal health care changes, reorganization of the judiciary and state hiring process, and a budget with no tax increases. Expanded gambling, crown jewel on his docket, appears teed up for July.

This program aired on June 10, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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