Ethics case in Mass. worries defense attorneys

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Posted: Apr 03, 2012 6:12 PM
Ethics case in Mass. worries defense attorneys

A couple of months before Election Day in 2010, the Massachusetts lottery began running a TV commercial in which it pronounced itself "the most successful state lottery in America" and boasted of providing a bounty of money for roads, schools, police and firefighters.

The ad did not mention that the lottery was overseen by then-state Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who was running for governor. Cahill did not appear in the commercial. It did not even mention his name.

This week, though, Cahill was indicted along with two aides on charges they illegally used the taxpayer-funded ad to promote his campaign for governor.

The case represents the first test of a 2009 Massachusetts ethics law that is considered one of the toughest such measures in the nation.

While state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who brought the charges, portrayed the episode as a clear-cut misuse of office by Cahill, defense attorneys warned that the case could open up politicians to prosecution for just about any act that could enhance their careers.

"Don't all elected officials calculate the politics whenever they take actions or not take actions?" said Max Stern, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "It seems to me they do that all the time. They're political animals."

In announcing the charges Monday, Coakley said text messages and other evidence showed that the ad was crafted in consultation with Cahill's election staff after focus groups for the campaign found that promoting his management of the lottery could help him get elected. Coakley said the $1.5 million ad campaign represented the bulk of the lottery's $2 million advertising budget for the year.

"The timing, amount budgeted and coordinated messages of the lottery ads all point to a decision made by Treasurer Cahill to abuse his position of trust and put his own political ambitions over the best interests of the taxpayers," Coakley said.

Cahill, a former Democrat who ran for governor as an independent and came in a distant third, said Tuesday that he did nothing wrong. If convicted, he could get up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine on the ethics charge.

"Knowing what I knew then and even what I know today, we'd do it again," the former treasurer said. He added: "We will fight these charges and do whatever we have to do to clear my name and my reputation."

His lawyer, E. Peter Parker, argued that Cahill was duty-bound to run the commercials after attack ads by the Republican Governors Association undermined public confidence in the lottery and hurt sales.

"Treasurer Cahill had an obligation to maximize lottery revenues. He and the lottery made the right choice to run the ads," Parker said.

The ad pointed out that since 2003 _ the year Cahill took office _ the lottery had provided $6.4 billion to cities and towns. "That's the result of a consistently well-managed lottery," the ad said, "and luck has nothing to do with it."

It is not unusual for politicians to arrange elaborate bill-signings, insert themselves into press releases taking credit for all sorts of achievements, or appear in public service announcements paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Because of that, defense attorneys warned that the case against Cahill could make it difficult and perilous for politicians to draw a line between campaigning and the performance of their official duties.

"The principle is there that any official act that involves the expenditure of public resources _ however slight _ if it's done for a political purpose or even in part for a political purpose, could be subject to criminal prosecution," Stern said. "It's a very messy and murky area and undoubtedly will be problematic."

The 2009 measure, prompted by a corruption case that brought down the speaker of the Massachusetts House, toughened state law by making it a crime to knowingly use one's official position for "unwarranted privileges." Previously, such violations were punishable only by civil fines imposed by the state Ethics Commission.

The law also bars lobbyists from giving gifts to state lawmakers, prohibits legislators from accepting gifts of "substantial value," sharply increases penalties for bribery and strengthens the Ethics Commission.

Pam Wilmot, president of the good-government organization Common Cause Massachusetts, which pushed for the new law, conceded that while there is "a lot gray area in the use of political resources," it's important to keep a firewall between public funds and politicking.

"If there is ever going to be a line drawn around your office for political purposes, it has to be here, when you have staffers talking about `We have to boost our numbers and this is how we should do it,'" she said.

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Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie and Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.