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scot lehigh

Coakley’s case puts focus on Cahill’s cynical practices

Tim Cahill charges look worse than Massachusetts politics as usual

ANOTHER MONTH, another set of indictments. That’s starting to seem like the norm on Beacon Hill.

On Monday, it was former treasurer Timothy Cahill and two erstwhile aides who were officially accused of a crime.

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Or rather, of several. The corruption charges against Cahill all grow out of accusations that he used the Massachusetts State Lottery’s advertising budget to benefit his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. And what can a longtime Cahill observer say, really, except this: No big surprise there. And this: It looks like a solid case to me.

A small-bore Norfolk County pol, Cahill made it into statewide office with the help of a cute-kid TV ad in an under-covered race. There was little remarkable about him beyond his overweening ambition. Wags liked to say that as treasurer, he remained a Quincy city councilor at heart.

In announcing Cahill’s indictment, Attorney General Martha Coakley maintained that Cahill and his political team had schemed to use about $1.5 million, three-quarters of the lottery’s fiscal year 2011 advertising budget, for TV and radio spots slotted for the last two months of the 2010 campaign.

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The intent, she said, was to underscore Cahill’s campaign message that the lottery was successful and well-run.

Cahill is innocent until proven guilty, of course, but the e-mail and text-message trail from his former aides has always been damning. Under a subject heading “what I helped get done with him today,’’ which recounted actions Cahill had agreed to, Dane Strother, a senior campaign consultant, e-mailed to other members of Cahill’s inner circle: “Get the lottery immediately cutting a spot and get it up . . . needs to focus on the lottery being the best in the country and above reproach.’’

Some will likely dismiss what former treasurer Timothy Cahill allegedly did as politics as usual, a maneuver that would have been winked at a few decades ago.

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In a text exchange that same day with campaign manager Adam Meldrum, Strother wrote that “Cahill thinks most of the two million is there,’’ noted that the then-treasurer couldn’t be in the ad but that it could be about “the lottery being well run and putting money back into the communities,’’ and concluded: “I am going to speak to the ad company about copy cahill agreed.’’

Addressing reporters Tuesday, Cahill said the ads burnishing the lottery were “entirely appropriate and legal’’ because the agency’s reputation had been damaged by anti-Cahill ads run by the Republican Governors Association. But Coakley, who said her office had interviewed dozens of people from the Cahill campaign, the Treasury, and the lottery, said that until Cahill and his political aides concocted their scheme, the lottery had had no plans to run such ads that autumn.

If true, where does this fall in the State House Hall of Shame? Certainly it’s not as corrupt and repellent as former House Speaker Sal DiMasi taking $60,000 in kickbacks for helping fix a state software contract. Or as tawdry and dishonest as state Senator Dianne Wilkerson accepting $23,000 in bribes. Those crimes amounted to selling one’s office for personal enrichment.

Some will likely dismiss what Cahill allegedly did as politics as usual, a maneuver that would have been winked at a few decades ago. And indeed, two of the charges are based on the ethics law overhaul the Legislature enacted in 2009, which made using one’s official position to obtain an unwarranted privilege a criminal rather than a civil offense.

But in terms of undermining an important state agency, this affair is on par with the Probation Department scandal.

That scandal, by the way, also touched Cahill’s operation: Last fall, Coakley secured the indictment of Scott Campbell, Cahill’s former chief of staff, and John O’Brien, the former probation commissioner, for allegedly having arranged a job for O’Brien’s wife at the lottery in exchange for O’Brien raising $11,000 for Cahill; that case has yet to go to trial.

Because it marks something of a prosecutorial departure, my view is that Cahill, if found guilty, should not receive the sort of stiff sentences Wilkerson and DiMasi got.

But make no mistake: The attorney general is right to prosecute. If Cahill did as she alleges, it’s a cynical misuse of public office and of public funds and a betrayal of the public trust. This kind of abuse has to stop.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.
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