After the announcement of his mistrial yesterday, former state treasurer Tim Cahill proclaimed it to be a “total vindication.” It was not. And while Attorney General Martha Coakley weighs whether to retry Cahill — a decision that should be based on her assessment of the likelihood of success — Cahill’s defenders will be tempted to take aim at the law under which he was charged, renewing their claim that he was accused of nothing more than Massachusetts politics as usual. He was not.
Cahill’s prosecution has been viewed as a test not only of his stewardship of public resources, but also of the 2009 law imposing criminal penalties on officials who use public resources for private political ends. As his gubernatorial campaign was foundering in 2010, Cahill approved an odd $1.5 million publicity campaign touting sound management at the state Lottery, which he oversaw. There were telling electronic messages between Cahill’s campaign operatives and the ad agency working on the campaign.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. This evidence failed to persuade all the jurors that Cahill had conspired with others to break the law. But the result, an acquittal for Cahill’s co-defendant and a mistrial for the ex-treasurer himself, in no way means that what Cahill was accused of is within the bounds of tolerable political conduct. Massachusetts should still not accept — not for an instant — the suggestion that the diversion of public funds for private political ends is merely how politics is practiced.
Unfortunately, many on Beacon Hill are bound to draw the wrong lessons from Wednesday’s outcome. Ever since Coakley sought charges against Cahill, there has been considerable grumbling among the state’s political elites that what she accused the former treasurer of doing was merely a variant on what all politicians do. Of all people, former Governor William Weld — who once pursued public corruption as a US attorney — recently argued to the Boston Herald that politics requires a certain amount of “Mazola oil.” “It’s like they’re criminalizing the Mazola oil,” he griped.
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.
At this point, Coakley must decide whether to seek a second trial. Unless she has new evidence to bring to bear, a second trial for Cahill seems unlikely to yield a different result. Political-corruption cases can be hard to prove; as an unidentified juror told reporters Wednesday afternoon, “The hurdles you have to cross in order to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt — for some people — were not crossed.” Other legal sanctions under state ethics rules for elected officials may be applicable in Cahill’s case.
Regardless, voters should stand firm against any proposals to modify or undo the 2009 law. Cahill’s trial shouldn’t be the first and the last use of it, because there’s too much Mazola oil in Massachusetts politics.