It’s an observation that has become cliché, but it needs to be made: Without robust local journalism, it is nearly impossible to hold government accountable. Yesterday’s conviction of former Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi on federal corruption charges would likely not have happened without the Boston Globe.
As best as I can tell, the first article was this one, published on May 23, 2008, and written by staff reporter Andrea Estes — with an assist by Steve Kurkjian, a legendary investigative reporter who is still working despite being allegedly retired. Headlined “IBM, Cognos to refund state $13m,” it contained the seeds from which grew a mighty oak:
House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi had taken a strong interest in the contract last year. The former head of the Information Technology Division told state officials that the middleman in the deal, former Cognos executive Joseph Lally, had bragged about his relationship with DiMasi and suggested that DiMasi wanted the contract to go to Cognos. Cognos also contributed generously over several years to a charitable golf tournament hosted by DiMasi at his home course, the Ipswich Country Club.
The impetus for that first story came from Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, who found that the Cognos contract violated state bidding rules. But the matter may have gone no further if the Globe had not kept pushing.
Two months later, Estes and Kurkjian reported, “Software company Cognos ULC hired House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi’s law associate, and a key Cognos sales agent hired DiMasi’s personal accountant during a period when the firm was winning millions of dollars in state contracts.” The rest is history.
I’ll admit that I was skeptical of the DiMasi prosecution. I didn’t like it that his downfall began shortly after he saved the state from Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to build three casinos — not that I’m suggesting a relationship between those two actions.
I also didn’t like the feds’ reliance on the “honest services” statute, which US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has observed is so broad it could outlaw “a mayor’s attempt to use the prestige of his office to obtain a restaurant table without a reservation.” (Although I should note that the court narrowed the law considerably in 2010.)
As it turned out, though, the evidence against DiMasi was strong; nor did he offer much of a defense.
This is journalism in the public interest, and no one can do it except a large, well-funded news organization with lots of resources. It doesn’t have to be a newspaper. But in 2011, very few news organizations other than newspapers are capable of such vitally important work.
Update: After doing some additional research, I now think this Estes article from March 10, 2008, was the first to link DiMasi and Cognos.
Photo (cc) by Luciof and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.