THE INDICTMENT this week of former state Treasurer Tim Cahill has raised some existential questions for Massachusetts politicians and voters. Does public corruption begin and end with taking bribes or pocketing money from the public till? Or should an official be held criminally liable for squandering public resources for purely political gain, as Cahill is now accused of doing?
A Suffolk County grand jury accused Cahill of trying to use over $1.5 million in advertising money from the state Lottery, which the treasurer’s office oversees, to boost his own prospects in the 2010 gubernatorial race. In the aftermath, a number of voices, including this page, applauded Attorney General Martha Coakley’s decision to enforce a tough 2009 state ethics law that subjects officials to possible prison time for using public resources for their political benefit. Yet a number of other voices have worried that Coakley is criminalizing everyday politics - that Cahill is facing prison time for doing something that many other elected officials have done.
Cahill deserves the presumption of innocence. Yet taxpayers should reject the suggestion that he is being arbitrarily prosecuted. State laws against the private use of public resources have been toughened because the Legislature reasonably concluded that civil penalties had failed to deter unethical activity. Moreover, cases like Cahill’s are likely to be unusual: Proving a connection between a public act and a private motivation is normally difficult; it’s only possible now because of an unusual e-mail trail that appears to connect a major shift in Lottery advertising to Cahill’s political needs.
The case should prompt others to re-evaluate behavior that once seemed normal in Massachusetts. Cahill’s successor, Steve Grossman, has already announced that he will take his picture off the unclaimed-property list that the treasurer’s office regularly circulates. This is deeply healthy. Self-promotion on the public dime was regarded as politics as usual only because Massachusetts laws - and Massachusetts voters - put up with it. Now that’s changed, and Cahill should have taken note.