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Recent allegations challenge DiMasi’s grasp on House

Glen Johnson

Throughout his ups and downs as House speaker, Salvatore F. DiMasi has always sought to project a steady-as-she-goes image.

When the Boston Democrat was accused of scuttling an open debate on the governor’s proposal to license three casinos, the speaker highlighted the many administration initiatives he had backed.

More recently, allegations of possible ethical lapses by DiMasi have cracked that facade. And the question now circulating through the State House is whether “steady-as-she-goes” will be replaced by “suddenly-he-went.”

It gained currency last week when some of DiMasi’s top lieutenants called a news conference to defend his honor.

One reason?

Their constituents were starting to question what’s going on. That’s never a good sign for someone like the speaker, whose job is dependent on support from people elected by those constituents.

The allegations surrounding DiMasi are rooted in a common question: Is the speaker allowing friendships to affect the outcome of legislation moving through the House?

In one case, the suggestion is that a bill eliminating a profit cap on reselling sports and concert tickets was passed after lobbying by Richard Vitale, DiMasi’s friend. He also provided DiMasi with a $250,000 third mortgage on his North End condominium.

DiMasi has also faced questions about a $13 million state software contract for a company with ties to friends; support for wind farms in Buzzards Bay that could benefit a friend; and a $50,000 grant for a film festival run by another friend.

In each case, DiMasi or his staff has denied wrongdoing, saying bills are being crafted based on merits. It was a point reiterated by the seven loyalists who held last Thursday’s news conference.

“I think that all members of this Legislature believe that the process in this Legislature is a good process and a process that can be explained,” said state Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, a DiMasi ally.

The group delivered something akin to a grade school civics lesson, saying the speaker has empowered them as chairmen to craft bills that are then discussed in public hearings before being put to a vote.

“I have never, in my since-1991-being-chairman, I have never had a speaker say to me, ‘You have to put this into the bill,’ or, ‘You have to take this out of the bill,’” said state Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams.

Then he added an afterthought that strained credibility to anyone familiar with the ways of Beacon Hill.

“What speakers like to do,” Bosley said, “is schedule debate on the floor.”

That’s like arguing that the president of the United States enjoys scheduling White House tours.

A former speaker once said that while the governor is elected by the whole state and the House speaker and Senate president represent small districts, when they walk into the State House, each leads an equal branch of government.

As speaker, DiMasi decides which bills get to the floor, which have a chance of passage and whether his members should support or throttle initiatives developed by the governor or the Senate.

A speaker’s levers of command include determining what committees his supporters serve on, where their offices should be located, and who should get the salary stipends that go with being committee chairmen — like all those attending last Thursday’s news conference.

Those stakes explain why disorder surrounding the speaker has triggered disorder in the House.

State Rep. Robert DeLeo of Winthrop, the Democrat who heads the Ways and Means Committee, has been busily trying to line up support should DiMasi decide to step aside.

The same goes for state Rep. John Rogers, D-Norwood, who had been on a leadership track until DiMasi’s predecessor, Tom Finneran, stepped down.

As members pick sides in anticipation of a fight, support for the current speaker can erode and tension between the sides can create pressure to resolve the dispute.

The drip-drip-drip of the allegations, which progressively are getting closer to home by involving DiMasi’s house, wife and personal finances, are creating appearance problems.

“I think he’s worried about that, and if I were speaker, I’d be worried about it,” state Rep. Frank Smizik, D-Brookline, one of DiMasi’s lieutenants, told reporters. “It undermines his credibility and the House’s credibility.”

Glen Johnson has covered local, state and national politics since 1985.

(Associated Press)