Charging Tim Cahill: too much or about time?

Most attorneys general don’t go after political corruption because acting against colleagues can translate into a dead end politically. But Martha Coakley has a new Public Integrity Division, a welcome addition. And she has the new 2009 ethics law, which criminalizes behavior previously treated civilly. Still, there are questions about whether she is being too aggressive in going after former TreasurerTim Cahill, using a cannon to kill a flea.

At issue was his using three quarters of the Lottery Commission fy 2011 advertising budget to extol the virtues of that agency in the weeks before the 2010 election, Coakley was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. If she took no action, she’d be accused of a cover-up. If she indicted him, she would be accused of excessive aggression and advancing her own political career. (Yesterday, to counter that, she made an early announcement that she’d be running for reelection, not for Governor.)

Previously what Cahill did would have come up before the state Ethics Commission, resulting only in a fine. Now, if he’s convicted, he could land behind bars.

Reporters and columnists are seeing old examples in a new light. Bill Galvin showing up in voter registration ads, Steve Grossman injected into abandoned property notices, Tom Menino’s name on Boston construction signs, Deval Patrick on highway projects. Will these have to go away as well? (Note: apparently Galvin’s ads don’t appear during an election season.) Certainly all politicians will have to be much more careful about how much they, using taxpayer dollars, inject themselves or take credit for their official accomplishments or projects.

Cahill may reasonably argue that his face and name were deliberately excluded from the Lottery commercials. He could also say that lottery ticket buyers could be turned off by disparaging ads run against the Lottery by the National Republican Governors Association during the gubernatorial campaign, when Cahill, running as an Independent, threatened to spoil things for Republican Charlie Baker.

Three Boston Globe writers have had totally different takes on the Cahill story, all three – Scot Lehigh, Brian McGrory and Joan Venocchi – worth reading.

For me, what legitimizes Coakley’s action is the trail of emails showing close collaboration between Cahill staff and his campaign consultants. Naïve? Stupid? Venal? Take your pick. Not to prosecute would give the green light to politicians of all stripes that the new ethics statute will be meaningless. Cahill may just be unlucky in being the first to be prosecuted under the new law. He should get more than a slap on the hand, more than a fine, but he is not Sal DiMasi, who got money in exchange for steering government contracts. Nor is Cahill Dianne Wilkerson, who stuffed money in her bra in exchange for regulatory consideration. Time in the slammer? House arrest? Probation? Community service? I’d like to hear from you.

I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.

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