David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Deval Patrick railed against the "Beacon Hill culture" when he ran for governor in 2006. Now he's part of a trial with the potential to expose its most unsavory elements.
Patrick is the highest-profile potential witness in the trial of former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, which begins today in federal court as prospective jurors fill out questionnaires. DiMasi, a Boston Democrat, is accused of receiving $65,000 in kickbacks for helping funnel $17.5 million in state contracts to the Burlington software company Cognos.
Richard Vitale, DiMasi's friend and former accountant, and their friend Richard McDonough, are charged with extortion and mail and wire fraud, among other charges, for allegedly misappropriating DiMasi's power as speaker.
A fourth co-defendant, Joseph Lally, pleaded guilty last month and is set to testify against DiMasi. Lally worked as an independent sales agent for Cognos and brokered deals that netted him $2.8 million in commissions. Prosecutors allege he then paid kickbacks to Vitale and McDonough, with some of the money ultimately reaching DiMasi.
His two immediate predecessors as speaker, Charles Flaherty and Thomas Finneran, also faced federal charges but ended up escaping prison time. Flaherty resigned in 1996 after accepting a plea bargain stemming from income-tax violations.
Finneran left of his own accord in 2004 but amid allegations he perjured himself during a federal probe of legislative redistricting. He ended up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, which got him disbarred.
The current speaker, Winthrop Democrat Robert DeLeo, joins Patrick on the witness list, as does Senate President Therese Murray.
The spectacle of those Beacon Hill leaders all Democrats trotting in and out of the John Joseph Moakley courthouse has cast a pall over the State House, just as lawmakers debate ways to close a budget deficit of over $1 billion.
It also comes just after another spectacle: the bribery cases of former Senator Dianne Wilkerson and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, and the plea deal in which former Senator James Marzilli admitted to accosting, disorderly conduct, and resisting arresting charges after harassing women sexually in downtown Lowell.
Each has cast government in a negative light.
For his part, Patrick has remained upbeat, saying he will do his civic duty and testify as required. But the suggestion is that his administration succumbed to pressure from DiMasi.
“Everyone seems happy. Hope the big guy down the hall is, too, and we get some credit," then-Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwan wrote to her undersecretary when a $13 million Cognos deal was signed in August 2007.
The administration later reversed itself and voided the contract after Inspector General Gregory Sullivan found it had been awarded in an unusually rushed procurement process that bypassed basic bidding rules.
Now the governor is poised to walk into federal court, past a bank of television cameras, to testify from a witness stand, the charcoal sketches of which are sure to proliferate. He would do so just as he comes off a run of positive media after the release of his memoir, "A Reason to Believe," and begins fulfilling his role as a reelection surrogate speaker for his friend, President Obama.
It's hardly the image Patrick envisioned when he first ran for elective office.
DeLeo, meanwhile, faces a major distraction as he tries to corral his members to deal with the budget, pass a Probation Department overhaul he favors, and try to renew support for expanded legalized gambling.
He was one of DiMasi's top deputies, and he will be asked to testify under oath about how deals were cut by his former boss and what he may have known about the Cognos contracts.
DeLeo's closeness to DiMasi was underscored in January, when he invited the former speaker, as well as Finneran and Flaherty, back to the House for its inaugural ceremonies.
DeLeo later said he regretted the image his glad-handing conveyed. Today others working in the State House wonder how DiMasi's trial will portray them.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.