In July 2009, a former state official accused of a crime stood on Beacon Hill, asserting his innocence and pleading with the public to believe in him, just like Timothy P. Cahill did last week.
Three years ago it was former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi making the appeal as he faced federal charges of accepting kickbacks.
DiMasi’s venue, though, was not Suffolk Superior Court, where Cahill was arraigned on charges of misappropriating state funds. Instead, DiMasi was around the corner at the Ashburton Place state office building, and the occasion was an appearance before the Massachusetts Board of Retirement.
The reason? He was trying to persuade Cahill - who chaired that board as treasurer - to reverse his decision to suspend DiMasi’s state pension.
Cahill had asserted that he had no choice but to withhold it, because the former speaker was accused of a crime stemming from the public office he held. If he waited and DiMasi was convicted, the treasurer argued, the state might never recover the retirement funds paid him.
“We’re not taking away anyone’s legal rights,’’ Cahill would later say. “We’re not overstepping our bounds because the person in this case is a high-profile person. At the same time, we’re not shying away from doing our duty because the person is a high-profile person and can afford very good attorneys.’’
Cahill added: “It should give people confidence that we’re doing our job.’’
A court later reinstated the pension, saying state law was clear that retirement checks couldn’t be stopped before a public employee was convicted of a crime. DiMasi’s checks continued until his conviction last year.
Nonetheless, his experience proves instructive as Cahill himself now faces criminal charges.
Cahill’s own pension is at risk, because he is accused of misusing his power as treasurer. He allegedly forced the Lottery to air television ads that weren’t intended to help the state agency but instead his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Cahill pleaded not guilty last Wednesday.
He hasn’t yet started receiving his pension, as DiMasi had during their 2009 confrontation, but the former treasurer can thank the former speaker for taking him and the Retirement Board to court. Because of that, it’s highly unlikely that the new state treasurer, Steven Grossman, can go after Cahill’s pension unless and until he is convicted.
It is but one hopeful development for a former constitutional officer now facing the prospect of a trial that could not only drain his savings account but send him to jail. Were Cahill to be convicted of the charges he faces, he would be likely to lose some or all of the public pension he has accumulated over 23 years of service as a Quincy city councilor, Norfolk County treasurer, and treasurer of the Commonwealth.
With that tenure and an average top salary of $131,000 as treasurer, his pension would reach up to $75,000 annually if he filed for retirement at age 65.
The irony of the peril Cahill now faces is that he was zealous about pension revocation issues while treasurer.
In 2009, when he was clashing with DiMasi, Cahill acknowledged that some people thought he was grandstanding to boost his 2010 gubernatorial campaign - the same campaign in which he is now accused of running sham Lottery ads.
In September 2003, Cahill revoked the $64,000 pension of John “Jackie’’ Bulger after he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. He was found guilty of lying to grand juries investigating the disappearance of his brother, James “Whitey’’ Bulger, while Jackie Bulger was serving as clerk magistrate of the Boston Juvenile Court.
Cahill contended that Bulger’s actions conflicted with his duty to uphold the law as clerk, as well as the oaths of honesty he routinely administered in his own court.
Bulger initially persuaded a judge to reinstate his pension, but Cahill and the Retirement Board appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court. It ultimately reversed the lower court and agreed with the revocation.
“This case was never about the last name of the person involved,’’ Cahill said after the SJC’s 2006 ruling, “but, rather, ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules.’’Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.