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Joan Vennochi

Power, arrogance, and the speaker

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / May 1, 2008

WHEN THE powerful turn into the arrogant, they also risk turning into the ex-powerful.

Salvatore F. DiMasi, the powerful speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, should remember that.

DiMasi has friends who appear to be trading on his influence. But DiMasi arrogantly refuses to acknowledge the risk of his friendly entanglements.

The Globe's Andrea Estes and Stephen Kurkjian recently reported that one friend, Richard Vitale, was hired by ticket resellers to push for legislation that would make it easier for them to do their business. They did so, according to the Globe report, because of Vitale's personal and professional relationship with DiMasi.

Vitale is also the speaker's personal accountant, former campaign manager, and underwriter of a $250,000 third mortgage on DiMasi's North End condominium. He has never registered as a lobbyist and did not do so for his work in 2007 on behalf of the ticket sellers. If he registered as a lobbyist, the loan to DiMasi, obtained at below-market interest rates, would be prohibited by state conflict-of-interest laws.

DiMasi insists that neither he nor his staff ever spoke with Vitale about the ticket broker legislation, and that his personal and financial connections played no role in his support for it. The speaker also said he did not accept the $250,000 loan from a lobbyist.

That's correct, because Vitale calls himself a "strategist," not a lobbyist.

However, Secretary of State William F. Galvin is now asking Vitale to produce the names of executives and legislative officials with whom he met; a list of all activities concerning the ticket resale issue; the number of hours spent on the matter; and the salary, retainers, and other payments or compensation attributable to those efforts.

If he was paid more than $5,000 to influence legislation, Vitale is a lobbyist as defined by state law, no matter what he calls himself.

The Vitale story inspired the state Republican Party to file its third state Ethics Commission complaint against DiMasi, and the GOP will keep the heat on as his ethics problem grows.

Republicans previously asked the commission to investigate whether DiMasi accepted a free golf game from a longtime friend, who is also one of the owners of Suffolk Downs; and whether he steered a multimillion-dollar state contract to a Canadian software company that was also represented by friends of DiMasi.

DiMasi has been blaming people around Governor Deval Patrick for generating negative news about him, as a way to undercut his opposition to the governor's casino gambling bill. But, at a certain point, the source of the attack matters less than the underlying truth of the attack.

The speaker's relationships hand his political enemies some credible ammunition. If he doesn't sense the danger, blame it on the suit of arrogance that seems to come with the speaker's office. DiMasi's predecessors wore it, too.

Thomas M. Finneran and, before him, Charles F. Flaherty were smart, engaging, and powerful leaders who convinced themselves they were invincible. They weren't.

Finneran resigned his House seat in 2004 to take a job as head of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. At the time, he was the subject of a federal probe into allegations that he lied under oath during a redistricting lawsuit.

The investigation cast a cloud over his final months as speaker and he ended up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. Flaherty resigned in 1996, after pleading guilty to tax evasion. He also admitted to ethics violations - accepting gratuities from lobbyists and other interests.

The current speaker isn't invincible either.

A golf game is easy for DiMasi to rationalize. He may also duck accountability for the software contract, since the Patrick administration, not DiMasi, awarded it.

But a direct connection between a piece of legislation and a DiMasi friend is dangerous to the speaker's political health.

Arrogance is no armor against the truth. DiMasi risks losing the speaker's office and the power that comes with it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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