Lawyers for former state treasurer Tim Cahill defended Thursday the state lottery advertising blitz that aired during Cahill’s failed 2010 campaign for governor, as they sought to have the corruption charges against him dismissed.
“It’s unprecedented to criminalize this type of behavior,” said Jeffrey Denner, Cahill’s lawyer, who characterized the ads as typical political practice.
But prosecutors said the $1.8 million campaign to promote the lottery, which Cahill oversaw as treasurer, was a criminal attempt to boost his flagging candidacy at taxpayer expense.
Jim O’Brien, chief of the Public Integrity Division of the attorney general’s office, said Cahill’s leveraging of his position to run the ad campaign was nearly akin to embezzling money directly.
“We’re not that far off in this fact pattern,” he said at a hearing in a Boston courtroom.
The judge, Christine Roach, did not rule on the defense motion to dismiss the charges.
It is unknown when she will decide. If the trial moves forward, a hearing is scheduled for next month.
Cahill and Scott Campbell, his campaign manager, pleaded not guilty in April to corruption charges.
After Thursday’s hearing, Cahill said he thought it had gone well and was pleased that his lawyers had the chance to present his case.
“It felt good to be fighting back,” he told reporters outside the courtroom.
He referred other questions to his lawyers.
In court, Campbell’s lawyer, Charles Rankin, said the advertisements were principally meant to help the lottery and that political incumbents regularly use their office to their advantage.
“There may have been a political advantage, but that does not make it a crime,” he said. “This is the way politics works.”
Rankin likened the advertisements to President Obama visiting swing states during his campaign and said that criminalizing such moves would “turn our political system on its head.”
“An incumbent can do all kind of things” to improve his or her public standing, he said. “That’s what incumbents do.”
Denner said the state ethics law Cahill is accused of violating is too vague to justify the charges.
“This is certainly ambiguous,” he said. “Respectfully, I think it’s beyond ambiguous.”
Denner said lawyers for both the treasurer’s office and the lottery approved the advertisements before they aired.
“You had a bunch of lawyers saying ‘You can do this,’ ” he said.
Prosecutors said the case is unusual because as the head of the state Treasury Cahill had an opportunity to use his office for political gain. “He was advancing the fraud from inside the system,” O’Brien said.
Campbell had e-mailed a lottery official about the ads, O’Brien said, a clear indication that Cahill’s campaign had “crossed the line into the lottery’s business.”
The ads did not mention Cahill by name, but highlighted the money the lottery provides for cities and towns and said, “That’s the result of a consistently well-managed lottery. And luck has nothing to do with it.’’
Under criticism from Attorney General Martha Coakley, Cahill pulled the advertisements about two weeks before the election. He received just 8 percent of the vote.
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.