Cahill To The Jury

The jury is heading into deliberations on the Tim Cahill (and Scott Campbell) charges this afternoon. I have not followed the trial and evidence in minute detail, so I'm reluctant at this point to say whether they should, or will, return guilty verdicts.

But I will say how I've more or less viewed this prosecution all along, which is a pretty ambivalent position.

It certainly seems like a stretch to say that Cahill deserves criminal prosecution, and potential jail time, for what he is alleged to have done, which is bolster his election prospects by using the State Lottery marketing budget to promote his stewardship of the lottery.

After all, pols use their current offices to promote their political careers all the time, in all sorts of ways. This seems like a relatively minor infraction, one that should be handled through some non-criminal oversight process.

But on the other hand, there is a context worth considering. The law he's being prosecuted under was a newly-passed direct response to ethics problems on Beacon Hill. The Commonwealth had a real need to restore integrity in the political process -- in fact, Cahill was running, in part, as someone sufficiently outside the Beacon Hill culture to be able to take it on and reform it.

It's tough to say that the Commonwealth should look at alleged violations of the new reform law, the very first time they were put into effect, in a campaign for the top position of power on Beacon Hill, and say 'well, that doesn't seem like a big deal, so we should just let it pass.' That's not exactly how to reassure the public that integrity has been restored.

When Cahill chose to run in the first major, high-profile election after these reforms were made into law, it seems to me he had an obligation to know and follow the new requirements. If he didn't, I'm hard-pressed to have much sympathy for him. "Everybody does stuff like that" doesn't work as an excuse when you're the first one running under the new law.

Of course, he insists that he did not do what the prosecutors claim. That's a standard-of-proof issue for the jury to deal with; as I said, I don't feel qualified to make that call. But there certainly seems to be a case to be made.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Cahill -- like many pols -- relied on a small core of people to handle things for him, and switched those people from the campaign to the public office and back again as needed. When that's the case, it's likely that you'll go to those people -- say, to approve ad copy -- with things that they shouldn't actually be doing under the hat they're wearing at that moment.

Pols and staff shuffle those kinds of distinctions all the time. Most of the time, it seems ridiculous -- logging out so you can log back in to send an email from the other account, etc. And most of it does very little to create the kind of firewall imagined by the good-government activists.

But if that's what the state has decided you must do to demonstrate the absence of corruption, that's what you've got to do. I may not see the grave harm in Cahill (allegedly) having his top people, currently employed by the campaign, direct the Lottery ad strategy. And I might think that the point of the new law could have, and should have, been made without a criminal prosecution. And I might think that sending Cahill to jail serves no purpose but to destroy a man for (at most) a harmless transgression.

But if the Commonwealth just made clear that doing something is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment, then you don't do it. So if Cahill went and did it anyway, it's hard for me to feel much sympathy for him.

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