April 3, 2012
BOSTON — Beacon Hill is buzzing over the indictment of former state Treasurer Tim Cahill. Cahill faces jail time for allegedly misusing public funds to further his 2010 campaign for governor. It’s the latest in a long line of prosecutions of Massachusetts politicians — and for Cahill’s peers, it raises a troubling question: Has behavior that’s been commonplace for years suddenly become criminal?
Cahill defends himself
With bloodshot eyes and a hoarse voice, Cahill stood outside his Quincy home this morning and said that he’s being unfairly targeted by Attorney General Martha Coakley, saying, "We will fight these charges and do whatever we have to do to clear my name."
Coakley said on Monday Cahill broke a new state ethics law by running a lottery ad that was really intended to boost his campaign for governor.
The problem is this: Whether it's Boston mayor Tom Menino plastering his name around the city, Secretary of State William Galvin’s election-year reminders to get out and vote, or Treasurer Steve Grossman’s exhortation to reclaim your abandoned property, politicians routinely do their jobs in ways that are also politically beneficial.
Incumbents "have done that forever," said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Joseph Martin Institute for Law and Society at Stonehill College. "It is their No. 1 priority to be re-elected or elected to a new office."
Politics as usual?
WGBH News asked Gov. Deval Patrick if the law he signed in 2009 strengthening penalties for ethics violations criminalized standard political practice. His response was less than forthcoming.
"I’m not going to comment, so let me filibuster a little while," Patrick said, then, "Look, you’re asking me for a legal opinion — I’m not going to give you one."
Still, that possibility is a hot topic on Beacon Hill. State Rep. David Sullivan (D-Fall River) said he and his colleagues need to be extremely careful.
"People just need to be vigilant," he said, "And people may have a concern about being more careful about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it."
Ethics, legality and prosecution
Glen Johnson, politics editor for boston.com, pointed out that Patrick's law passed because the public was outraged by ethics violations. The Cahill case has "the potential to shake up the whole establishment."
Law professor George Brown, former chairman of the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission, agreed that people might be getting fed up.
"I think you're kind of getting a convergence of two trends here, which is a growth in public interest in the phenomenon, and unwillingness to continue taking it, and a newfound aggressiveness on the part of law enforcement to pursue new theories and push the envelope a little bit," Brown said.
To Johnson's mind, Coakley couldn't not pursue an indictment. The AG's office has emails and text messages that allegedly show Cahill and his aides intentionally scheming to use public money for his own personal gain, he said: "If you turn a blind eye to that, where are you ever going to draw the line down the road?"
Cahill and two of his aides are due in court for their arraignment Wednesday morning.
The Cahill indictment came on the heels of a nationwide report on state corruption, the State Integrity Project. See the Massachusetts results and give us your grade for corruption in the Bay State.
FORMER TREASURER INDICTED