Timothy P. Cahill delivered the most important stump speech of his life on Thursday, testifying at his own corruption trial that he ran lottery ads in the midst of his race for governor only because he was determined to salvage the agency’s reputation, not his political career.
With his hands draped casually over the witness box, Cahill, a former state treasurer facing up to five years in prison, displayed the smooth self-confidence that helped him rise through the rough world of Quincy city politics to statewide office.
Under friendly questioning from his lawyer, he calmly and repeatedly declared that the nearly $2 million lottery ad blitz that he ran in the fall of 2010 was designed solely to rebuild the lottery’s image, which had been battered by attack ads run by the Republican Governors’ Association.
Cahill said he knew the “insidious” Republican ads, which were aimed at sinking his campaign for governor by attacking his management of the lottery, had succeeded. But the reputation of the lottery, and the treasurer’s office that ran it, could still be saved, he testified.
“They may have succeeded with [destroying] my political campaign, but I wasn’t going to let anyone succeed in tearing down the treasury,” Cahill told the jury. “I would take whatever criticism came my way, and let the chips fall where they may.”
The ads, which praised lottery management without directly mentioning Cahill, ran from Sept. 29 to Nov. 2, just before the general election.
Prosecutors contend Cahill launched the publicly funded ads to boost his flagging campaign. They will cross-examine Cahill on Friday, the first time he will face hostile questioning on what will be the 18th day of his trial in Suffolk Superior Court.
The trial is a test for Attorney General Martha Coakley, and her newly created Public Integrity Division, which is prosecuting Cahill and wants to send a message that it is able to police corruption.
So far, prosecutors have produced e-mails that show Cahill campaign aides discussing the lottery ads with executives at Hill Holliday, the powerhouse Boston agency that oversaw the lottery’s ad account.
The e-mails also show Hill Holliday executives advising Cahill operatives on campaign ad strategy at the same time the executives were handling lottery business with state money.
Cahill’s lawyer on Thursday gently led him to acknowledge some of the prosecution’s potentially damaging evidence and explain why campaign aides were discussing lottery ads.
Cahill said, for example, that Mike Sheehan, Hill Holliday’s chief executive, had e-mailed scripts for lottery ads to Scott Campbell, a top campaign aide and now a codefendant in the case, only as a way to make sure they reached Cahill in his role as chairman of the lottery during the hectic campaign season. Cahill said he didn’t always check his BlackBerry.
Cahill also acknowledged that he sent information gleaned from one of his campaign focus groups to Sheehan at Hill Holliday. But he asserted he gave Sheehan the information only because he believed it would help Sheehan craft the lottery’s official ads, since the focus group had been asked about the damage done to the lottery’s reputation by the Republican attacks.
In a third acknowledgment, Cahill said a campaign consultant, Dane Strother, had urged him to run the lottery ads during what Cahill called “a stream of consciousness” conversation in Cahill’s Jeep. Still, Cahill testified, he never gave Strother or any other campaign aide a role in directing the ads.
The former treasurer said he first discussed the lottery ads on July 18 with Mark Cavanaugh, executive director of the lottery, while they were at the Revere Beach sandcastle contest on a sweltering Sunday. They were there for a Cahill campaign appearance, but wanted to devise a way to rebut the Republican ad assault.
“We were both anxious to respond to the attacks that were taking place,” Cahill said. “I felt at this point that the sooner we get the ads up, the better.”
Two top treasury officials, however, were concerned about running the ads in the heat of the governor’s race. Cahill said Grace Lee, the first deputy treasurer, and Al Grazioso, the lottery’s chief of staff, both warned him that the ads would be criticized by the media and by his rivals as politically motivated.
But Cahill said he told both of them that he was prepared for the criticism and, “I just want to make sure we do the right thing by the lottery.”
Cahill, 53, has appeared upbeat throughout the trial. During breaks, he chats with court officers, jokes with reporters, and makes a habit of moving a lectern out of the way to clear a path for jurors on their way out of the courtroom.
On the stand on Thursday, he peppered his testimony with jokes about his driving and about Wednesday’s giant Powerball jackpot. Nobody laughed, but Cahill’s wife, Tina, seated behind him in the public gallery, chuckled.Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.