Salvatore F. DiMasi, former speaker of the Massachusetts House, told a visitor to his temporary prison in Rhode Island that he testified for five hours before a federal grand jury investigating the hiring scandal in the state Probation Department, answering a question that has gripped Beacon Hill for weeks.
But DiMasi, who was transported here under a cloak of secrecy from federal prison in Kentucky in order to testify, insisted he did not provide significant information that prosecutors could use against current or former legislators, said several people briefed on DiMasi’s comments.
Whether DiMasi would cooperate with investigators and whom, if anyone, he might implicate have been topics of intense speculation among state politicians and lobbyists. As speaker from 2004 until he resigned in the face of an unrelated scandal in 2009, DiMasi was so important to former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien that he kept a spreadsheet containing a list of all the people DiMasi supported for probation jobs.
Representative Charles A. Murphy, a Burlington Democrat, said DiMasi’s return last month added to the air of apprehension that had engulfed the Legislature amid reports that US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz might seek indictments against a dozen or more people in the probation investigation, including current or former legislators.
“Nobody has any real sense of what may or may not happen,’’ said Murphy. “Sal’s presence escalated the apprehension. No one knows what he said or if he said anything.’’
DiMasi’s testimony is secret, but some lawyers say the fact that prosecutors want to ship him back to Kentucky, where he was serving an eight-year sentence in an unrelated corruption case, suggests that DiMasi was not that helpful.
DiMasi had asked to remain at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, R.I., but Judge Mark L. Wolf rejected that request this week, siding with federal prosecutors who wrote that DiMasi should go back to Kentucky right away because “the reason for his temporary custody at Wyatt no longer exists.’’
DiMasi’s lawyer, Thomas R. Kiley, would neither confirm nor deny that DiMasi had appeared before the probation grand jury.
“I have not talked about this grand jury, and I’m not going talk about it now,’’ Kiley said.
But Representative Angelo M. Scaccia, Democrat of Readville, who visited the former speaker in Rhode Island, has told several people that prosecutors asked DiMasi whether certain politicians had called him on behalf of probation job candidates. Scaccia told at least one person that DiMasi told him he was not interested in any deal to reduce his prison term in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors.
After several hours of questioning, the prosecutor, Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak, wrapped up the session, concluding that DiMasi’s testimony was not going to be particularly helpful, according to one person briefed on DiMasi’s appearance.
Scaccia did not respond to a request for comment on his meeting with DiMasi.
Former US attorney Donald K. Stern, now in private practice at Cooley LLP, said that calling DiMasi to the grand jury does not mean the government’s investigation is faltering.
“It doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the ongoing investigation,’’ said Stern, who is not involved in the probation case. “It tells you the government believes this witness has evidence that is relevant and not easily obtainable from another source.’’
In fact, the federal investigation appeared to be wrapping up in mid-January when one person familiar with the investigation told the Globe that prosecutors are “just checking details at this point.’’ But, since DiMasi departed his Kentucky prison on Feb. 2, the investigation seemed to gain new energy.
On Wednesday, for instance, about 20 witnesses were scheduled to appear before the grand jury, according to a person who was at the session in Worcester. That person asked to remain anonymous because the grand jury’s proceedings are confidential.
The federal investigation stems from a 2010 series by the Globe Spotlight Team. It portrayed the Probation Department as a virtual hiring agency for the well connected few under O’Brien, who faces state criminal charges that he traded political donations from his employees for a job for his wife under former state treasurer Timothy P. Cahill.
Ortiz launched the investigation in November 2010 after a special counsel, Paul F. Ware Jr., released his 300-page report detailing how O’Brien and his lieutenants rigged the hiring and promotion process to funnel jobs to insiders, especially friends, family, and supporters of legislators.
Ware found that DiMasi may have been the single greatest beneficiary of the favoritism, obtaining jobs or promotions for at least 24 job candidates that he supported.
Some speculated that DiMasi, 66 and facing serious financial problems at home, might be tempted to cooperate with Ortiz’s office in hope of shortening his prison sentence for steering state contracts to the software company Cognos in exchange for cash funneled through a law associate. In addition, DiMasi might be able to serve his sentence closer to home, as he had requested last fall.
Instead, DiMasi faces the prospect of returning to Lexington, Ky., where he is scheduled to remain until Nov. 17, 2018.
At almost the same time that Wolf declined to help DiMasi stay in Rhode Island, another judge authorized the East Boston Savings Bank to foreclose on and sell the condominium on Commercial Street in the North End where DiMasi’s wife, Debbie, still lives.