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Closing arguments set for DiMasi trial

Sides jockey to solidify their positions in case

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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Six weeks after jury selection began, prosecutors and defense lawyers in the corruption trial of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi are slated to make closing arguments today in a dramatic case that cast a critical spotlight on the state’s political establishment.

Lawyers for DiMasi and two codefendants will each have an hour to address the jury, and prosecutors will take up to two hours, including rebuttal arguments.

Each will hope to solidify their case in a trial that began with opening statements 36 days ago and included 16 days of testimony from 24 prosecution witnesses, including high-profile political figures. Defense lawyers called three witnesses over three days of questioning this week, and both sides introduced more than 100 exhibits.

The legal back and forth continued through yesterday.

“All I can say is [there are] skilled defense attorneys who fight everything, tooth and nail,’’ Assistant US Attorney S. Theodore Merritt mused during a three-hour court hearing yesterday.

US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf responded, “Well, I think we’ve seen that from prosecutors over the last six months, too.’’

The case is expected to go to the jury on Monday, and lawyers scrambled yesterday to shape Wolf’s final instructions to the jury on how to interpret the indictment, their last chance to have an influence in the case and a key strategy for the defense.

Wolf said he will finalize the instructions once closing arguments are completed today.

“I’m going to instruct the jury that they have to consider each defendant, and they can choose to convict one of them, two of them, none of them, or all three,’’ Wolf told the lawyers yesterday.

Wolf said he also may rule on a defense motion to dismiss the case for lack of merit. The defense filed the request after the prosecution rested, which is standard procedure.

DiMasi and two of his longtime friends, financial adviser Richard Vitale and lobbyist Richard McDonough are charged with conspiracy to use the power of the speaker’s office to help a Burlington software company, Cognos, win two state contracts totaling $17.5 million in exchange for secret payments.

DiMasi allegedly received $65,000 that was funneled through a former law associate, and prosecutors say he also planned to benefit from $600,000 paid to Vitale as part of the deals. McDonough received $300,000 for his alleged role in helping to secure the contracts for Cognos.

The three men have denied any wrongdoing and say the case is based on the lies of Joseph P. Lally Jr., a former Cognos vice president and salesman. Lally, who was a defendant in the case, pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors in exchange for a reduced jail sentence.

Lally testified last month that McDonough approached him about ways to financially support the speaker in 2004, marking the beginning of the conspiracy. He said he put former DiMasi associate Steven Topazio on the Cognos payroll because McDonough told him the money would be paid to DiMasi in referral fees.

Topazio testified that he was an unwitting participant in the alleged scheme and that he turned over checks to DiMasi.

Several members of Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, including the governor himself, later testified that DiMasi lobbied them for the type of software at issue in the case, though they acknowledged that DiMasi never mentioned Cognos by name.

Lawyers for DiMasi said the former speaker was simply pushing for a legitimate contract. They also called Lally a fraud who exaggerated his ties to the speaker, fueling a false conspiracy theory.

Yesterday, lawyers and prosecutors battled over the language to jurors, proposing their own definitions for what constitutes a scheme, intent, and the official wording for what makes up the charges in the indictment.

Defense lawyers want Wolf to instruct jurors that to convict DiMasi and his associates, they must find that the former speaker directed the scheme. Defense lawyers say prosecutors have not met that threshold.

Prosecutors argue they need only to prove that DiMasi was a willing participant in the alleged conspiracy and that he knew he could receive money for helping win the Cognos contract.

Yesterday, Wolf was considering jury instructions that seemed to strike a compromise between the two sides.

The judge said he would define reasonable doubt and tell jurors they do not have to find “absolute doubt,’’ but that they cannot work off suspicions.

“There are very few things in this world we know with absolute certainty,’’ the judge said.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.