Some of Martha Coakley’s critics say she has been overzealous in pursuing public corruption.
Other observers of the attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor make the case that she has been too soft on the issue, often leaving the heavy lifting to federal prosecutors.
All of which raises a vexing question — how can one person be too tough and too soft on the same issue?
In a Globe story Sunday, Gregory Sullivan, former inspector general, recounted a meeting with Coakley in which, he says, she urged him to drop an investigation. In 2008, his office was looking into illicit payments by a software company called Cognos to then-House speaker Sal DiMasi and members of his inner circle.
According to Sullivan’s recollection, Coakley believed that no laws had been broken, and urged him to focus instead on producing a report on the “lessons learned” from the Cognos-DiMasi relationship.
Sullivan, of course, did no such thing. The work of his investigators led to the successful federal case against DiMasi, who became the third consecutive speaker prosecuted by the feds. DiMasi is currently serving an eight-year sentence in federal prison.
Sullivan was an outstanding inspector general, and the DiMasi investigation was easily his finest hour. Still, this anecdote — allegation, really — is curious, not least because it comes so long after the fact and right before the election. Sullivan, who was never exactly press-shy in office, says he was not at liberty to discuss the matter while the case was active. Also, he wasn’t looking to disclose this conversation now; he was approached by a reporter asking about Coakley’s record on corruption cases.
Coakley supporters questioning Sullivan’s credibility point out that he now works for the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank that is a staunch supporter to Coakley’s opponent, Republican Charlie Baker.
Coakley’s former deputy, David Friedman, attended the meeting in question. He, and other assistants in the room, firmly denied that anyone in Coakley's camp ever asked Sullivan to stop investigating.
I can easily believe that Coakley erred in assessing the evidence against DiMasi. Was Coakley too quick to conclude that DiMasi hadn’t broken the law? Perhaps. At the time, the well-liked DiMasi had many supporters in state government. For a lot of people, his culpability took a while to sink in. More than one person wanted to believe that it was DiMasi’s friends who were corrupt, not the speaker himself.
But the idea that Coakley wasn’t interested in corruption, or protected fellow politicians, would come as a surprise to Tim Cahill. He’s the former state treasurer Coakley unsuccessfully prosecuted for using $1.5 million in lottery ads to promote his independent campaign for governor. Eventually Cahill’s case ended in a hung jury, and Cahill agreed to pay a $100,000 fine — a sensible resolution.
Even many who don’t share her politics give Coakley solid marks as attorney general. Certainly she has made plenty of debatable decisions, as is the nature of the job. But the implication that she wasn’t interested in prosecuting a speaker of the House seems out of character. Coakley has consistently taken on powerful interests, from tobacco companies to major banks. She may have been wrong about DiMasi’s actions, but I don’t think she took a dive.
Coakley faces no shortage of obstacles in the last week of this campaign — which, if the polls are to be believed, is slipping through her fingers. Perhaps she has not found the galvanizing message she needs to win. Maybe her parade of high-profile surrogates is not going to be able to drag her across the finish line. Maybe voters will decide they want someone else. None of that would surprise me.
One thing would, though: finding out that Martha Coakley knew about bribery and wanted to look the other way. That isn’t the person I’ve seen in action.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.