Former Democratic state representative Vincent J. Piro, a colorful figure in Massachusetts politics who beat an attempted extortion charge in the 1980s, died Friday at the age of 78.
Mr. Piro, known as “Vinnie” in the corridors of power on Beacon Hill, grew up in Somerville and attended Salem State, where he played basketball and received a bachelor’s in education and a master’s in business, according to the Dello Russo Family Funeral Home.
After finishing his studies, Mr. Piro worked for a time as an educator before entering the sharp-elbowed world of state politics. He rose from being a Somerville alderman to serving in the State House for 16 years.
Before the federal investigation, he had emerged as a Democratic leader and power-broker.
A 1981 Globe editorial headlined “VINNIE AND DENNY’S BUDGET” illustrated the clout Mr. Piro wielded during a showdown over the state’s finances.
“It was not funding of local aid or the proposed layoffs of state employees that forced welfare recipients and state workers to go without their checks for three weeks; it was a political tug-of-war between two Somerville pols, Vinnie and Denny — Rep. Vincent J. Piro and Sen. Denis L. McKenna,” the editorial lamented. “Vinnie was angry that his long-time friend (and Cape Cod neighbor) had been passed over for [a probation] job and had retaliated by engineering the job’s $28,000 salary out of the House version of the 1982 budget.”
The high-profile criminal investigation ended with his acquittal in 1985 on federal charges of attempted extortion and conspiracy.
“We don’t believe Vincent Piro was innocent, because he did commit a crime,’’ said one juror shortly after Piro was cleared of the charges. “But we do believe he was not guilty as charged, because entrapment was used to promulgate a crime.’’
Mr. Piro had been accused of taking a $5,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent to influence liquor license legislation. Mr. Piro returned the money three weeks later, arguing that he had been entrapped. But he had been recorded on tape saying some of the cash would be used to “grease a few guys.”
His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury, before he prevailed in round two.
William F. Weld, a former Massachusetts governor and US attorney who oversaw the prosecution of Mr. Piro and who’s now running a long-shot primary campaign against President Trump, speculated in 1986 about why the government took one on the chin against Mr. Piro.
“I sometimes think the jurors said to themselves, ‘Hey, he gave the money back. Why is that such a big deal?’ ” Weld told the Globe at the time. “That’s not an attitude I can share, but it may be what happened.”
In 2006, Mr. Piro’s name came up in a federal lawsuit involving victims of the now-deceased gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.
During the 2006 civil suit, retired FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick testified that the FBI during the early 1980s wanted to “get” three of the state’s top politicians at the time: Piro, then-House Speaker Thomas W. McGee, and then-Senate President William M. Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother.
A witness at Mr. Piro’s 1985 trial had testified that the lawmaker demanded upfront money because he needed to “consider some people, like the speaker.” McGee denied wrongdoing and was never charged. No evidence surfaced against William Bulger.
Fitzpatrick later pleaded guilty to perjury for lying during Whitey Bulger’s blockbuster 2013 criminal trial.
Mr. Piro attempted a political comeback in 1986, targeting the state Senate seat held at the time by Salvatore Albano.
During the bruising 1986 race, Mr. Piro said Albano was “all over the place” on the issues and chided his rival for, among other things, claiming support for the elderly while voting against a budget amendment that increased exemptions for senior citizens.
“He’s trying to drag me down to his level,” Albano said of Mr. Piro at the time. “If you want to talk about credibility, he has none. If Vinny Piro said he’s honest and has integrity, people would laugh. The joke is that he’s even a candidate.”
A death notice from the Dello Russo Family Funeral Home said the former lawmaker enjoyed tennis and golf and detailing friends cars.
Mr. Piro’s wife, Karen, died last year. He leaves his daughter, Lisa Bowler, sons Vincent and Michael, and four grandchildren. A funeral Mass will be said 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Patrick Parish in Stoneham.