The Cahill Case

There has been much writing, and plenty of really obnoxious pontificating, on the Tim Cahill case. We have run the gamut, from speculation on retrying Cahill, to whether the non-verdict is a reflection on Martha Coakley, and how that impacts her political future, all the way to Bill Weld talking about Mazola oil.

Cahill was tried under a new statute that criminalizes the utilization of public monies for self promotion. The 2009 law tries to discourage the type of behavior that Cahill was charged with, and I am not sure who could argue with the premise. But as the Cahill trial showed, proving the allegation, even with an email trail, can be exceedingly difficult. So what can be done to achieve the policy goal that the new law seeks? Is it to place Tim Cahill into criminal court facing a five year jail term? I submit that it is not.

As with many things in government these days problems are not addressed with workable solutions, but with public relations stunts that end up leaving a big pile of smelly stuff on the table. And that smelly stuff is just what we ended up with in the Cahill case. We have the Globe editorial board admitting that this was a cluster, but urging folks not to take the wrong lessons from this case. The editorial showed just how stupid this law, and this prosecution, were, while trying to show the exact opposite.

It’s certainly true that the line between self-promotion and the outright diversion of resources can be hard to find in politics. Elected officials pursue policies that reward their supporters and make appearances at public expense in places whose voters they’d like to court. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino famously has his name on anything and everything the city touches — up to and including its recycling bags. The public should resist such practices. Yet the very pervasiveness of this conduct suggests the need to set some sort of line, to separate the gross abuses from the mundane. A politician who allegedly spends $1.5 million in public ad money for the stated purpose of promoting himself should be subject to prosecution. That money could better serve countless legitimate social needs.

So now we need to allow some of this conduct, but draw a red line at some undefined point. Recycling bags with pictures are not good but should not result in charges, but Tim Cahill must be prosecuted because he ran ads that did not mention him. Intriguing theory. Who will draw the line? Prosecutors? We have constitutional officers now making public pronouncements that they will omit any pictures and references to themselves. Hilarious. Are they aware that a public service message too close to an election might trip a prosecution? Or would it? The law itself will never bring a single conviction in its current form. The Cahill case, from a prosecutors view, is as good as it will ever get. That’s only my opinion, and I am not a lawyer, but lets see what the future brings.

In light of the above do I believe that using public resources for political gain should just be allowed? Is Weld right in calling it Mazola oil? I don’t think so. Adjudicating claims against office holders of this type belongs with the State Ethics Commission, with big fines for activities that are clearly defined. If Cahill ended up before Ethics he might have thrown in the towel, agreed to a finding, paid the fine and moved on. The idea that even in light of the result it was a good idea to prosecute Cahill to promote future adherence to the law is more of that smelly stuff that the law itself left behind. Cahill and his family are human beings, and the idea of using them as guinea pigs should repulse decent people. He is, and was, dead politically.

Attorney General Coakley was in a difficult position. If she did not prosecute she would likely be accused of declining on the basis of politics. When she did prosecute she was accused along the same lines. The fault lies with the law, not with the A.G. But now the wise and prudent choice,moving forward, is the obvious one. I hope she declines to re-try.

When Tim Cahill was the Treasurer I served as Mayor of Methuen. He was very kind to the City in his capacity as the head of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and the Methuen High School Project moved forward with his support. In the race for Governor I endorsed Deval Patrick.

As a footnote to this much has been made of Cahill’s lack of political acumen. He was repeatedly told that an independent candidacy for Governor was suicidal politically. But like many folks who think that normal rules of politics do not apply to them Cahill plunged forward and got his ass handed to him. He has been derided for that judgement, and justifiably so. But you cannot be tried for political stupidity. I hope that someone has the guts to look at the law, and recommend necessary changes.

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