A key witness in the federal corruption trial of former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi took the stand today with a blunt confession: “I don’t want to be here.”
Steven J. Topazio, a private attorney who shared office space and expenses with DiMasi, made the comment as he began undergoing questioning by the prosecution.
Court records say that at DiMasi’s urging, Topazio was paid $5,000 a month to be a local counsel for Cognos, a Burlington software company seeking state contracts, even though he did not perform any work. Topazio allegedly paid DiMasi $4,000 from each check.
"'It's about time we started getting business like this,'" Topazio testified DiMasi told him. "He was excited by it, and I was excited by it."
Yet he added: "I was concerned, because Cognos hadn't sent me any work to do."
Once the investigation began that led to the corruption charges, DiMasi allegedly asked Topazio to lose his check register. Topazio refused; he has not been accused of any wrongdoing and is testifying under a grant of immunity.
Today, he repeatedly referred to DiMasi as "Sal," and said at one point: "I trusted him, I looked at him for guidance ... I looked up to Sal."
DiMasi, his friend and accountant Richard Vitale, as well as Beacon Hill lobbyist Richard McDonough, have been charged with using the power of the speaker’s office to steer two performance-management software contracts totaling $17.5 million to Cognos in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret payments.
All three have been charged with conspiracy, honest services fraud, and mail and wire fraud. In addition, DiMasi is charged with extortion for seeking the payments.
A fourth defendant, former Cognos salesman Joseph P. Lally Jr., a purported architect of the scheme, has pleaded guilty to corruption charges and agreed to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a reduced jail sentence.
On Friday, another former Cognos salesman, Christopher Quinter, became the first witness to testify. His direct questioning and cross-examination did not conclude until today, highlighting how both sides in the case have been trying to set the terms of the trial.
It has been repeatedly interrupted with sidebars with US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf, who is presiding over the trial and has had to settle an array of disputes.
In settling one such question, Wolf ruled that prosecutors could not say that DiMasi made a phone call to Lally, only that the call came from DiMasi’s personal phone since there was no proof who dialed the number.
But court records also show that Lally sent Cognos officials an e-mail just after one such call in which the salesman reported, “I just got off the phone with the speaker.”
Defense lawyers have attacked the credibility of Lally, accusing him of fabricating the bribery scheme and name-dropping for his own ego. Now, the lawyers said, he is cooperating with authorities to save himself from lengthy jail time and the forfeiture of his assets.
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