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For nearly a year and a half, Beacon Hill has been operating under the specter of the Massachusetts Probation Department patronage scandal. Last month, the Boston Globe — whose Spotlight Team series brought the problem to light — reported that indictments were imminent, and would include current and former state legislators.

That news shook up the State House, but not nearly as much as the two things that happened next. The first was that the expected indictments did not come — leading to rampant speculation that new developments have broken.

And second, US Marshalls removed former House Speaker Sal DiMasi from the Kentucky penitentiary where he is serving an eight-year sentence for corruption and put him on a bus to Worcester, reportedly to appear before the grand jury hearing testimony on the case.

The possibility that DiMasi, who spent years at the center of Massachusetts politics, might be trading testimony for a reduced sentence has shaken Massachusetts legislators more than any other scandal or investigation of recent years, according to close State House observers I've spoken with recently.

"There's a real sense of, 'Holy shit,'" says one. "Nobody knows what the potential fallout is."

The fear is that if DiMasi, and perhaps others, have decided to start making deals, they could be offering information on shenanigans far beyond the probation department. And if Boston's US attorney, Carmen Ortiz, is willing to strike a deal with DiMasi, it would have to be for something bigger than just confirmation of names and deeds already in their sights.

Prior to these new twists, most legislators viewed the probation investigation much like a disease whose potential carriers had been identified and quarantined. Now, it's as though anybody could be infected.

The range of the potential fallout is wide. Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly reported this past week that federal investigators have expanded the scope beyond probation, into the judiciary, with new subpoenas issued for officers to testify.

And the Globe, in reporting DiMasi's departure from Kentucky, implied that his testimony might relate to allegations that patronage was used to buy votes for Robert DeLeo's ascension to Speaker. DeLeo has denied any wrongdoing, and his attorney, Robert Popeo, insists DeLeo is not a target of the investigation.

The truth is, nobody knows what the federal prosecutors are up to. They may be bringing DiMasi up to tell him that they plan to charge him in the probation scandal, and to see if he'll testify to avoid the chance of an additional sentence that could make it unlikely the 66-year-old would ever live again as a free man.

Or, as some suspect, the feds might be bringing him to Worcester as a ruse, to scare others into coming forward. Whether or not it has had that effect, it has certainly got lawmakers worried.


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MACHINE LEGACY

One reason current and former lawmakers are so nervous — along with other public officials past and present — is that many of them are genuinely unclear about what type of behavior the US attorney now considers prosecutable.

That makes this case different from, for example, the DiMasi case, where prosecutors alleged that money went into the Speaker's pocket as payment for political action.

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