On any given day, New England Cable News (NECN) features more smart, substantive politics coverage than any other Boston television station. But right now, the station is facing a thorny little conflict-of-interest problem involving Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi, whose embattled status happens to be the story of the moment on Beacon Hill.
Some background: on May 1, the Boston Globe ran a front-page story on how legislative moves by DiMasi have benefited his friend, developer Jay Cashman. In 2006, DiMasi killed a bill that would have blocked a liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) construction project in Fall River, paving the way for a real-estate deal that netted Cashman more than $14 million. And in 2007, he backed legislation that could lead to the construction of a wind farm in Buzzards Bay — where, it turns out, Cashman hopes to build one.
As the Globe’s Frank Phillips noted, the DiMasi-Cashman connection isn’t limited to the two men; their spouses, Debbie DiMasi and Christy Scott Cashman, are currently collaborating on a TV program. Open Book Club, a sassy, half-hour literary confab, is produced by Saint Aire Productions LLC, a production company that Christy Scott Cashman runs. It’s taped in the Cashmans’ Back Bay manse. And as of May 4, it’s broadcast monthly on NECN.
Phillips’s story was about DiMasi’s ties to Cashman, not whether NECN’s link to the two men’s spouses is problematic. But that’s a natural follow-up question. On the one hand, NECN has to cover DiMasi and the turmoil threatening his Speakership, including the question of whether he’s used his position to benefit Cashman. On the other, NECN is involved in a business partnership with DiMasi’s and Cashman’s wives — and perhaps, depending on Saint Aire’s ownership structure, with Cashman himself. (Tom Kiley, the Cashmans’ attorney, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but both Jay and Christy Scott Cashman’s names appear on paperwork filed with the state.)
All this would be awkward enough. But on May 2 — one day after Phillips’s exposé was published — “Names,” the Globe’s gossip column, featured a big photo of NECN head Charles Kravetz at the Open Book Club launch party, which also took place in the Cashmans’ home. In the photo, Kravetz was flanked by Christy Scott Cashman and Debbie DiMasi. He looked delighted; so did they.
So much unknown
The question, obviously, is this: should NECN pull the plug on Open Book Club?
Before answering, consider a few more details. First, NECN isn’t paying for the right to broadcast Open Book Club. Instead, Saint Aire is paying the station — NECN won’t say how much — just as Ron Popeil would if he wanted to hawk the Veg-o-Matic.
It’s also not clear what financial benefit, if any, Debbie DiMasi is getting from her involvement with Saint Aire. George Regan, a spokesman for Jay Cashman, told the Globe that Debbie DiMasi’s compensation was “a private matter”; Sal DiMasi has refused to discuss it; and Saint Aire didn’t respond to inquiries from the Phoenix. If Debbie DiMasi is being paid by Saint Aire, this wouldn’t be illegal. But it would be noteworthy — especially if a substantial amount of money is involved.
Finally, looking ahead, there’s the issue of program sponsorship. If Open Book Club was sponsored by advertisers doing business with the state of Massachusetts, this would pose a whole new set of problems. That’s a purely hypothetical scenario, however, because the program currently has no sponsors. (Mmes. Cashman and DiMasi have said they hope to attract literary advertisers such as Amazon.)
Compared with, say, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell covering the Bush administration while her husband, Alan Greenspan, ran the Federal Reserve, NECN’s conflict of interest seems relatively mild. And for now, the network has no intention of ending its relationship with Open Book Club and Saint Aire. Says NECN’s Vice-President of Communications Doreen Vigue: “We have fully vetted this business relationship” — i.e., Christy Cashman and Deborah DiMasi’s partnership — “and we know it’s aboveboard. We’re very comfortable that these ladies have joined together in a legitimate business venture.”
“We’re proud of the show,” she continues. “It’s beautifully done.” And, Vigue concludes, “We’ve been covering DiMasi as hard as anyone out there. I challenge anyone to look at our coverage and say otherwise.”
For the most part, that description is apt. NECN has spent plenty of time on DiMasi’s travails, and NewsNight host Jim Braude has been especially pointed in his assessment of the Speaker.
Still, a recent interview that NECN’s Chet Curtis did with Sal DiMasi shows why the station should be worried. For most of the segment, Curtis was commendably tough. But when the conversation turned to Cashman, the tone changed.
First, Curtis asked DiMasi about the squashed LNG ban. DiMasi began his response by citing a two-page disclosure, filed with the House Clerk in 2007, in which he discussed the relationship that he and his wife have with the Cashmans. (This disclosure didn’t include mention of payments from Saint Aire to Debbie DiMasi.) Then he defended the merit of his actions.