Rick Holmes: Raising the bar for Beacon Hill pols
James Michael Curley never let an indictment, or even a prison term, keep him from running for office – and winning. He served as mayor of Boston, representative in Congress and governor of Massachusetts despite his legendary corruption, or maybe because the voters found corruption part of his charm.
Fifty years after his death, Curley’s ghost still haunts Beacon Hill, and the idea that political corruption is inevitable and sort of quaint still infects some parts of the political and media establishment.
But there’s nothing quaint about a state senator (Dianne Wilkerson) stuffing thousands in cash under her clothing in return for delivering a liquor license to a developer. There’s nothing romantic about a House Speaker (Sal DiMasi) taking $57,000 to push a state software purchase toward a crony’s client. The people charged with setting up a phony hiring process to disguise the fact that they were giving Probation Department jobs to candidates whose only qualifications were political aren’t lovable rogues, just cheating hacks.
In real life, corruption is the province of small men, not political giants. And sometimes the corruption is so ordinary that the corrupt don’t recognize it.
Which brings us to Tim Cahill.
Cahill got to be state treasurer because competition can be less than fierce in a one-party state. A former Quincy city councilor and Norfolk County treasurer, Cahill won the Democratic nomination in 2002 because, in a field of nobodies and a race that neither the voters nor the media paid attention to, he had the cutest commercial. It featured his daughter explaining that her dad was the best candidate because both Tim and Treasurer started with the letter T.
Winning the nomination meant winning the election, and, Massachusetts being a one-party state, Cahill probably could have stayed in the treasurer’s office as long as he didn’t get indicted. But he mistook his good fortune for popularity and decided he should be governor.
Cahill’s 2010 independent campaign for governor went from bad idea to disaster. In Gov. Deval Patrick and his GOP challenger, Charlie Baker, Cahill faced two opponents who lapped him in talent and support. He hired some former McCain campaign aides and a disloyal running-mate, Paul Loscocco, who stabbed him in the back.
Running a distant third, and with his campaign funds running low, Cahill turned to an account the state treasurer controls: the state Lottery’s advertising budget. According to the indictment handed down by a grand jury this week, Cahill and his aides enlisted $1.5 million in public funds to reinforce the campaign message about what a fine lottery manager he was.
In the indictment brought by Attorney General Martha Coakley, Cahill was charged with procurement fraud under a 2009 law that for the first time made it a felony to use a public office in such a manner. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.
That Cahill didn’t think he was doing anything wrong is a measure of how low ethical standards can be in Massachusetts.
Coakley has emails and text messages that indicate no one was trying to hide the mingling of campaign strategy and Lottery business. Cahill himself contacted the Lottery’s advertising agency with instructions for the ad buy, and a campaign aide — not a Lottery official — followed up.
“No one did anything wrong,” Cahill said at his arraignment, and a lot of people not normally in the ex-treasurer’s corner seem ready to give him a pass.
Some of these, of course, are people who are incapable of saying anything nice about Coakley. For years, they’ve criticized her for not going after public corruption. Now that she’s brought cases against Probation Department officials and a former state treasurer, they still aren’t satisfied. “Too little, too late,” sniffed a conserative friend.
Even over at the liberal Globe, columnists like Brian McGrory and Joan Vennochi clucked that Cahill was an easy target and that maybe Coakley should be indicted for using a press conference announcing the indictments to further her own political career. As if prosecutors should only go after prominent targets, not people who broke laws. As if speaking to the press is the equivalent of using the state Lottery’s money to augment a candidate’s campaign budget.
There’s something about seasoned veterans of Massachusetts politics, whether players or observers. We like our bad boy pols, the stories of old-timers who knew how to get out the cemetery vote, how to reward loyalty and punish enemies. We expect elected officials to pad their nests and use their offices to stay in office.
To these folks, tapping into the Lottery advertising account is barely distinguishable from the mayor splashing his signature on every public construction project in sight. It’s like hitting up those who do business with the state for campaign contributions, like giving state employees Election Day off so they can help their boss get re-elected.
Under law, the state treasurer must regularly publish the names of those who have abandoned property in state-monitored accounts in newspapers across the state. By tradition, those ads have featured smiling portraits of the state treasurer, and that’s just the start. I can remember a case 20 years ago when the state treasurer yanked those ads away from this newspaper as punishment for the sin of endorsing his opponent.
Since Steve Grossman took over the treasurer’s office from Cahill, the abandoned property ads haven’t included his picture. I like to think that’s a sign, however subtle, of a political culture changing. Politics as usual doesn’t quite cut it anymore.
What’s the sound of the ethical bar being raised?
Maybe it’s the sound of a prison cell door locking behind Sal DiMasi.
Maybe it’s the realization, dawning like the sun gleaming on the Golden Dome, that in light of the Probation Department indictments, getting a state job should be about what you know, not who you know.
Or maybe it’s the sound of Tim Cahill’s attorney complaining, as he did last week, that it’s not fair to prosecute a state official for something that wasn’t even a crime a few years ago.
I don’t know if Cahill will be convicted. This is the first test of a new law, and if the jurors are as cynical as the media, they may not want to convict a pol for doing the things all Beacon Hill pols do.
But I bet the next time an elected official considers turning public resources toward his re-election effort, he’ll at least consult a lawyer to find out where the legal and ethical bar stands. And that’s progress.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. Follow him on Twitter at @HolmesAndCo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.