Analysis: One Day In, DiMasi Trial Promises Drama

By Adam Reilly


May 5, 2011

Former Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi spoke briefly to reporters as he left federal court after being indicted on federal corruption charges in Boston in June 2009. DiMasi's defense against those charges will be made more complicated by his co-defendant's guilty plea. (AP)

BOSTON — The long-awaited trial of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi on federal corruption charges started Thursday — and based on the opening statements, it won't disappoint in terms of drama or political intrigue.

For example: in the prosecution's opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ted Merritt promised that "some of the most compelling evidence" against DiMasi and his fellow defendants — accountant Richard Vitale and lobbyist Richard McDonough — will come from none other than Governor Patrick himself.

Merritt also crafted a narrative that was borderline Shakespearean, in which DiMasi acquired an incredible amount of political power when he became Speaker — but simultaneously found himself unable to pay the bills after his new job diminished his legal business. At this point, Merritt claimed, DiMasi and his fellow defendants had an epiphany: DiMasi would steer millions of dollars in state funds to the software company Cognos — with DiMasi and his pals landing nearly $1 million in kickbacks.

DiMasi himself is only accused of getting $65,000 in illicit funds, however, and it's always seemed odd that the former Speaker would risk so much for (relatively speaking) so little. Today, Merritt offered an explanation: Vitale and DiMasi planned to set up shop as consultants when DiMasi finally left the State House. So the $600,000 in Cognos-related kickbacks Vitale allegedly received was really "seed money," as he put it, for Vitale and DiMasi's future.

And the defense attorneys? Well, William Cintolo's opening statement on behalf of DiMasi was heavy on both bombast and idealism. In Cintolo's telling, the intense interest DiMasi took in software products for the state's Departments of Education and Administration & Finance — products that were ultimately provided by Cognos for a whopping $17.5 million — really stemmed from a commendable interest in good government. Cintolo then contrasted DiMasi's high-mindedness with the alleged baseness of Joseph Lally — a former co-defendant in the case who flipped several weeks ago and is now working with the prosecution.

Lally was also a target for McDonough's attorney, Tom Drechsler, who called him a "degenerate gambler" and a compulsive liar in a scathing opening of his own. And while I had to leave the courtroom before Martin Weinberg, Vitale's attorney, completed his opening, I stuck around long enough to see him bash Lally as well. (I also watched Judge Mark Wolf give a big, bored sigh as Weinberg tried to turn Vitale into a character out of a Horatio Alger story -- albeit one who grew up in Revere.)

Given the complexity of this trial — reading the indictment took 40 minutes! -- there are sure to be several unexpected twists. But after today's proceedings, I've got a few burning questions to watch.

What will the governor have to say when he takes the stand — and how will he say it? (Remember: DiMasi was still Beacon Hill's big man on campus when Patrick became governor, and he relished rubbing in that fact.)

Given the prosecution's reference to current Speaker Bob DeLeo -- who was allegedly there when DiMasi discussed his exit plans more than a year before actually resigning -- will we see DeLeo testify as well?

Will Drechsler's argument on behalf of McDonough (basically: when Joseph Lally funneled money to DiMasi through DiMasi's law associate, Steven Topazio, my guy had nothing to do with it) undercut DiMasi's defense team, since it tacitly suggests that something untoward really did occur?

And finally: given the relish with which each defense attorney laid into Lally and his character -- might the feds end up rueing their decision to flip him?

Telling readers to "stay tuned" is a horribly cliched move. But in this case, I have no other choice. Given the way the DiMasi trial is shaping up, you won't want to miss a moment.

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