A key prosecution witness today testified that a Canadian software company seeking contracts with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts paid him $125,000 over two years for no work and that he funneled $65,000 of the money to then-House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi.
Steven J. Topazio, who shared office space with DiMasi and considered the Boston Democrat a mentor, said in one transaction, he called the company's Beacon Hill lobbyist for $25,000 in back pay at the former speaker's instruction.
"All I know is I had an argument with Sal about the referral and he had said I owed him $25,000," Topazio said under questioning by a federal prosecutor.
Ultimately, Topazio said, he bent and gave DiMasi the $25,000.
"I didn't want to fight with him," said Topazio. "I got a lot of business from him."
Furthermore, Topazio said, DiMasi had him break the $25,000 payment into four checks that each were for less than $10,000.
When Topazio asked why, he said, speaker replied, "That's the way I want it."
Topazio made the statements during his second day of testimony. It focused on an arrangement he had with the company, Cognos, in which he was paid a $5,000 monthly retainer fee although he never performed any work.
Topazio testified Tuesday he paid the former speaker $4,000 of each check as a “retainer fee,” at the same time the speaker unbeknownst to him was pushing for Cognos to win two state contracts totaling $17.5 million.
Prosecutors called the “referral fee” kickbacks. DiMasi and two associates, accountant Richard Vitale and lobbyist Richard McDonough, face corruption charges including conspiracy, honest services fraud, and mail and wire fraud. They have contended that any payments they received were legitimate.
Topazio, who has known DiMasi for close to 30 years, testified today that the former speaker tried to cover-up his financial connection to Cognos once a Globe series exposed the deal, and once federal authorities began investigation.
The attorney said that after the Globe started reporting on the deal in 2008, he called DiMasi to point out the contracts he had with Cognos, and to note that his register showed the checks he had cut to transfer some of the money to DiMasi.
Topazio said DiMasi asked him to "lose" those parts of his register. He said the former speaker also denied Cognos was his client.
"How could you say Cognos was not your client? Your best friend Dickie McDonough referred the case to me," Topazio said he told DiMasi.
Under cross-examination, Topazio said he and DiMasi had a longstanding referral arrangement that continued even after DiMasi became speaker.
Topazio also said he never inquired about how DiMasi calculated the $25,000 fee he demanded from Cognos.
While they argued, he said, "I wasn't going to bite the hand that feeds me."
In an early ruling today, US District Court Judge Mark Wolf, who is presiding over the trial, ruled that prosecutors could "mention" the newspaper's stories as prosecutors seek to prove that DiMasi and his allies tried to cover up illegal activity.
Under cross-examination, Topazio acknowledged giving conflicting accounts to the Globe in an effort to "protect" DiMasi.
Afterward, the jurors heard from the first State House player, former Representative Lida Harkins of Needham. She had served as co-chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education and was a top DiMasi lieutenant.
She testified that DiMasi asked her to approach former Education Commissioner David Driscoll and make a formal request for the Cognos software.
If Driscoll made the request, Harkins said, DiMasi "would make sure Bobby DeLeo put it in the budget."
She referred to Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat who, at the time, was chairman of the budget-setting House Ways and Means Committee. DeLeo subsequently replaced DiMasi as speaker and is now on the trial witness list.
Harkins told the jury she said to the commissioner, "This would be a good time to make a proposal for the data collection system," citing DiMasi's interest.
Under cross-examination, Harkins said she thought the software was a good idea for the department, regardless of DiMasi's interest.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.
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