RIP, Vinnie Piro, Somerville will never be the same

Not too many politicians get recorded on tape taking a $25,000 cash bribe from an undercover FBI agent at the State House – and then beat the rap in federal court, twice.

Not too many politicians win a primary for a higher office, even in the old Somerville, after they’ve had a hung jury in their first trial, but then lose the general election to a fat guy with a goatee running on stickers.

Not too many politicians have a brother who’s an alderman with a print shop in Magoun Square, who’s playing cards one Friday morning with a kingpin of the Winter Hill Gang out on work release, and suddenly a drug dealer bursts in and whacks the mobster in front of the alderman, the politician’s brother.

I’m talking here about Vinnie Piro, the longtime Somerville state rep who died Friday at Mass. General Hospital at the age of 78, after basically deciding to pull the plug on himself following years of declining health.

“Vinnie was one of a kind,” Bob Popeo, his lawyer (and mine) put it yesterday, and that’s an understatement.

Vinnie was a rogue, but a delightful rogue, a Somerville street guy, shrewd. If there were any flies on Vinnie, they were paying rent – in cash. So many stories, but this is a family newspaper.

Piro was the number-three guy in the House leadership in the early 80’s when he was targeted by the feds in a sting operation of basically the entire city government of the All-American City of Somerville.

The G-men sent in an undercover agent who was originally from Dorchester – very stupid to use a local guy, but hey, this is your FBI, to use the title of an old radio show. Anyway, the fed, Jack Callahan, started telling the Beacon Hill banditos that he was willing to pay cash for more racing dates for his track.

He went to Vinnie, who told Callahan it would cost him big bucks because, he said, he needed “walking around money…to grease a few guys.”

That was an exact quote. Sorry Vinnie but it should be on his tombstone.

Vinnie pocketed the marked bills, but then gave it all back a few days later, claiming he’d only taken the dough as part of a “fantasy.”

Unfortunately, some of the bills Vinnie returned had different serial numbers than the ones he’d accepted.

Many theories later circulated about why Piro had returned the dough. One was that he’d been at a Bruins game with a girlfriend, and that she’d recognized the fed as a guy she’d known when they were growing up together in Dorchester. One day I ran that rumor past Vinnie.

“Number one,” he said, “I don’t have a girlfriend. Number two, who the bleep goes to Bruins games?”

The indictment came at a particularly inopportune moment for Vinnie. The local Somerville-Medford state Senate seat had just opened up with Denis McKenna’s retirement. It was always said he McKenna only had one “n” in his first name because he hadn’t had have time to steal the second one. McKenna had three aides – two of whom were aldermen and all of whom had either served time or been indicted by the feds. One of them was his son.

Denis had also been targeted by the feds for a payoff, but McKenna caught a break – when the fed arrived at the solon’s house to deliver the payoff, he was told McKenna was too drunk to see him. It was 9 a.m.

Until he was arrested, Vinnie was considered a cinch to replace McKenna. The first trial took place during the primary in 1984. I covered it for Ch. 7. Every afternoon, the judge would admonish the jury not to watch any television coverage. Yeah, right. Every night, Shelby Scott from Ch. 4 and I would trade off on who got Vinnie first for a live shot at the top of the 6.

Vinnie was amazingly effective on those live shots. He even passed a lie detector test – at which point I totally understood why they are not permitted as evidence in a court of law.

The US attorney was Bill Weld. His top deputy was Mark Wolf, who went on to become a federal judge. Wolf wanted to put Vinnie away so bad he could taste it – once when he (wrongly) thought I had grand jury testimony, he called me up before I went on the air and snarled that I’d regret running the story. I laughed at him.

A week later I got an audit notice from the IRS. So did Vinnie’s lawyer Bob Popeo – on the very same day. What a coincidence. Popeo wrote the IRS a scathing letter and they backed off.

“I remember that,” Popeo told me yesterday with a chuckle. “As I recall, you were guilty and I was innocent.”

A few years later, Vinnie thought about running again for the legislature again. We had lunch and told him to forget about it. Our Somerville was already on the way out.

He went back to work for the construction company and spent more and more time in East Dennis. He got into some beefs with the town – those Cape yokels had these ridiculous notions about not allowing any building on conservation land, not to mention prohibiting anyone from  painting shingles pink on their own houses. I wrote some columns about Winter Hill coming to the Cape.

Finally Vinnie called me.

“I’m out of politics now,” he said. “Please, just let me ride off into the bleeping sunset!”

Adios amigo. Rest in peace.

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