Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker fought bitterly Monday night over accusations that she sought to scuttle an investigation into former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, as both candidates spent their next-to-last televised debate largely on the attack.
With a week remaining before Election Day, and some polls indicating Baker moving into the lead, the candidates showed a few unexpected flashes of humor and sharpened several familiar charges.
Baker sought to tie Coakley to a litany of problems in state government, saying she stood by as the state’s health care website failed, the Department of Children and Families bungled cases, and the rollout of medical marijuana dispensaries was hobbled by mistakes.
Coakley responded by casting Baker as an executive who valued the bottom line over people, faulting him for laying off workers and accepting a $1.7 million salary as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
The toughest exchange of the night came as the candidates delved into assertions by a former inspector general, Gregory Sullivan, who has said that Coakley balked at investigating DiMasi in 2008, three years before he was convicted in a federal trial.
But in the opening moments, it was Baker who was on the defensive when he was asked about allegations that he was involved in a pay-to-play scheme.
Baker gave $10,000 to the New Jersey Republican Party in 2011, a donation Democrats have tried to link to $15 million that the New Jersey pension fund later invested with a Cambridge-based firm where Baker worked.
Coakley demanded that Baker release his employment contract with the firm, and called on him to urge New Jersey officials to release their investigation of the matter before the election. “I just don’t think it looks good,” she said.
Baker ignored her demands, and said a former federal election lawyer he hired to review the case concluded he did nothing wrong.
Still, asked if he regretted making the $10,000 donation, he loudly exclaimed, “Well, yeah,” acknowledging the problems it has caused him.
Coakley’s role in the DiMasi case was the one new issue the candidates confronted, though, and it produced the liveliest exchange of the night.
In a Globe story on Sunday, Sullivan, the former inspector general, said Coakley told him that she had looked into the involvement of DiMasi and his associates in the awarding of a state software contract and saw no evidence the matter crossed a “bright line” into criminality.
Sullivan said she asked him to stop his investigation of the matter, and suggested she might produce a report on “lessons learned” from the affair.
Sullivan ended up taking his findings to the US attorney’s office, which charged the speaker with rigging the software contract in exchange for kickbacks.
Since the story Sunday, Coakley’s campaign has sought to undermine Sullivan’s credibility by attacking the Pioneer Institute, the conservative research organization where Sullivan now works, calling it “a tool of Charlie Baker supporters, the Koch brothers, and national Republicans.”
Baker responded in the debate by showering praise on Sullivan, and pointing out that he is a former Democratic state representative.
He also pointed out that Sullivan released a lengthy statement on Monday defending his accusation against Coakley.
“He is a person of extraordinarily high integrity,” Baker said. “And his response to the character assassination that was issued by your campaign yesterday is compelling reading. Specifics, dates, times. Tells quite a story. And I think the attorney general owes the public an explanation for that.”
Coakley shot back that she had brought charges against Richard Vitale, DiMasi’s accountant, and Richard McDonough, a lobbyist and DiMasi confidant.
She also pounced on Baker for accepting $375 in contributions from Vitale, according to state records.
“I am the one who brought the charges against and got convictions against Richard Vitale and Dickie McDonough,” she said. “So I would ask you, Charlie, why is it that you took money in this campaign from Richard Vitale? I fought convicted felons. You’re taking funds [from] them for your campaign.”
Questioned about those prosecutions after the debate, Coakley’s campaign backtracked, acknowledging that it was federal prosecutors, not the attorney general’s office, that secured a conviction against McDonough. Vitale, however, did plead guilty to charges brought by Coakley’s office.
Baker has returned Vitale’s contributions to his campaign. During the debate, he said Sullivan’s accusations cannot be easily dismissed.
“This is not some, you know, two-bit guy,” he said. “This is somebody who has a towering reputation on Beacon Hill for forthrightness and honesty. And for him to be attacked the way you folks attacked him yesterday is simply beyond the pale.”
Coakley strongly denied Sullivan’s assertion. “He’s either flat-out lying, or flat-out wrong,” she said.
The debate, held in Worcester and broadcast on NECN, was in some ways a warm-up for the final debate Tuesday night, when the two will clash in Boston.
That debate will be broadcast on WCVB-TV, WHDH-TV, WBUR-FM, and Bloomberg Radio.
The three independent candidates — Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick, and Scott Lively — were not included in the NECN debate. On Monday, a judge denied a lawsuit filed by Falchuk seeking to force the organizers to allow him to participate.
The debate came as new polls were released.
Late Monday, a UMass Lowell/7News poll showed Baker with the support of 45 percent of likely voters, compared to 41 percent for Coakley, with 8 percent undecided.
A New York Times/CBS News/YouGov.com poll that relies on more controversial online survey methods gave Coakley the edge, 45 percent to 41 percent over Baker.
The latest Globe poll, released late last week, found Baker up by 9 percentage points.
The candidates had some lighter moments Monday night when they were asked to answer yes or no to a series of questions.
Asked if they had ever smoked marijuana, Coakley said no and Baker said yes. But Coakley, a career prosecutor, then sparked some laughter by telling Baker not to worry, that the statute of limitations for charging him has probably passed.
When Baker was asked if there was a place for Coakley in a Baker administration, Coakley interrupted, saying, “No!” Baker laughed. “Oh, that was great,” he said.