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IF TIM CAHILL took bribes in return for pushing state contracts, like Salvatore DiMasi, Martha Coakley might not have much to say.

But to Coakley, Cahill did something more offensive. As state treasurer, he allocated public money for lottery ads that did not mention his name, but burnished his image while he ran a losing, third party campaign for governor. He also explained what he was doing in e-mails that were exposed after he sued his own campaign manager. Bingo. Under the state’s revised ethics law, Coakley indicted Cahill on charges that could send him to jail.

The case against the ex-treasurer is a test for a vaguely worded law that turns what used to be civil infractions into criminal activities. Tom Dwyer, a criminal defense lawyer and ex-prosecutor who specializes in white collar cases, argues that two sections of the ethics law used against Cahill were “never meant to apply to the conduct alleged in this case . . . I predict these charges will be dismissed without a trial.’’

It’s also a test for Coakley and what kind of crimes she brings to trial.

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The case against a consortium of Big Dig contractors for shoddy workmanship that resulted in a woman’s death didn’t qualify.

Coakley chose to settle that case for $458 million, even though her predecessor, Tom Reilly, said the tunnel collapse that killed Milena Del Valle was criminal. Coakley told an interviewer there was sufficient evidence to charge the consortium with manslaughter, but not enough evidence to indict individuals. Her decision led defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate to muse, “Since corporations commit crimes only by the actions of their human officials and employees, how can you have had sufficient evidence to indict the corporation, but not enough to indict the individuals whose actions and inactions made the corporation into an alleged criminal?’’

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Since losing to Republican Senator Scott Brown, Coakley has been carving a path to public redemption through a series of high-profile lawsuits and settlements. She is frequently mentioned as a gubernatorial candidate, but yesterday told the State House News Service she intends to run for reelection.

The loss to Brown clearly fired her up. Coakley sued banks to get relief for Massachusetts homeowners who lost their homes to foreclosure, and she’s still pressuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reduce loan principal payments for distressed homeowners and stop additional foreclosures. She also seems to be focusing more on public corruption. A new Public Integrity Unit in her office brought indictments against John O’Brien, the former commissioner of probation, and four Medicaid fraud schemes.

Previously, the US attorney - not the AG - was associated with recent major political corruption cases, including those that resulted in convictions of DiMasi, a former House speaker; Dianne Wilkerson, a former state senator; and Chuck Turner, a former Boston city councilor. In the Wilkerson and Turner cases, informants went to the FBI. Why didn’t those informants go to state authorities? Maybe they feared a dead end.

Coakley could have pursued DiMasi under state bribery laws, but she left it to federal prosecutors. Once the feds initiated their prosecution, there was no role for the state. Coakley’s office contends federal law is stronger; however, some lawyers contend state law is more explicit.

Leaving DiMasi alone, Coakley instead indicted his accountant, Richard Vitale, on charges relating to regulatory infractions. When the jury that convicted DiMasi acquitted Vitale, he admitted that he lobbied DiMasi without properly registering; he was placed on probation and fined $92,000.

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Vitale was an easier target than DiMasi, and so is Cahill.

Now an ex-state office holder, he left the Democratic Party to run as an independent. Republicans still view his campaign as a cynical plot to split the conservative vote and help Governor Deval Patrick win re-election, but the Democratic establishment doesn’t think much of him either. Cahill’s political life was already over, and now his legal bills will finish him off.

If, as charged, Cahill abused his office by using taxpayer money to coordinate ads, he should be held accountable. But when Massachusetts voters think of rooting out political corruption, are the charges against him what they have in mind?

This is a strong case of going after the weak. It’s harder to go after the powerful.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.