Cahill Mistrial

The jury acquitted Scott Campbell and was deadlocked on Tim Cahill, resulting in a mistrial; Attorney General Martha Coakley will hold a press conference in an hour or so at which she may or may not indicate whether he office will attempt to re-try Cahill.

My initial reactions on what all this says and means:

--Cahill probably won't be going to prison, which is a great relief for him and his family, but also probably ensures that this entire episode fades quickly in the public memory and means nothing in the long run.

--Attempts to make this into a political problem for AG Coakley will likely have no effect at all. And shouldn't. It's hard to find any fault with Coakley in this situation -- a whistleblower (from among the infamous Yobgoblins who left Cahill's team mid-campaign) came forward with evidence backing up claims that Cahill and Campbell violated the new ethics law. Everything flowed pretty logically, and almost inevitably, from that moment to this.

--This might serve, in some way, to help Beacon Hill pols still dealing with patronage and other scandals. The trial and result have re-inforced for much of the public the notion that all these ethics charges are a lame attempt to criminalize innocent, ordinary political behavior.

--That notion, however, is largely incorrect in this case. As I wrote last week, this case was about whether Cahill and Campbell violated a new law by having the political campaign direct the use of state funds for campaign benefit. It was a new law, drawing a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable, for a clear purpose. Their defense was not "that's no different from Secretary Galvin appearing in ads or mayors attending ribbon-cuttings," it was "we didn't do that."

--Which leads to one of the biggest lessons of the entire episode: these kinds of political corruption laws are very hard to write, and even harder to apply. If they're too weak, they end up encouraging worse behavior by, in effect, defining previously taboo behavior as legal. If they're too strong, they end up punishing people who don't really deserve it, and discouraging participation in public service. If they're too vague, they're impossible to make stick; if they're too specific, they're easy to evade. And similar conundrums face the prosecutors in deciding how and in what cases to move forward with.

--And yet, I'd have to say that the big picture is that the system worked pretty well. We do have a new, stronger anti-corruption law; pols have learned that they need to pay attention to the lines it draws or face potential severe consequences; a pol who skirted the line too cutely had to publicly defend his behavior; and it appears that nobody will be serving an unjust sentence. I expect that a lot of people will be denouncing all this as a waste of public resources. I disagree. I think it's been a positive experience in the public good.

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