Criminalizing Politics

Will Justice be served if Tim Cahill goes to jail for spending taxpayer money on lottery ads in the midst of the 2010 campaign?

The question will hinge largely on what the ads were seeking to do: prop up a floundering Cahill for governor campaign or prop up the lottery as an institution.  Cahill’s response to the Coakley indictment: the marketing budget was spent to bolster the lottery in response to negative attacks from the Republican Governors Association.  This was a legitimate use of public money and in line with established practices.  Coakley, relying, in part, on an interesting trail of internal emails, believes Cahill engaged in fraudulent intent to use public money for the political purpose of helping his campaign.

It would be naive to assume this is a case against Cahill alone.  Coakley’s office has struck at one of the key ways in which politicians seek favor with their constituents.  The political scientist David Mayhew wrote in his classic text, Congress: The Electoral Connection that legislators have one overriding goal: reelection.  To achieve this they use three basic strategies: advertising, credit claiming, and position taking.  These strategies are fully in use by statewide officers seeking reelection or election to another office.  Coakley’s indictment hits the first two of these right in the jaw.

This may not be a bad thing, particularly in an era of very limited resources.  But let’s look at some of the context here:

  • The State Lottery is a business and must market itself and it was being attacked in a very public manner;
  • The ads in question did not mention Tim Cahill nor show his picture–an odd way to fraudulently promote a candidate;
  • The voters of Massachusetts looked at the Cahill campaign (to call it a mess by the end would be generous) and opted not to cast their ballots for him;
  • A new Treasurer took over after 2010.

These last two points are important for me.  The ordinary processes of democratic politics can achieve a good deal.  In this case, if fraudulent intent was present, a fraudulent outcome did not emerge.  Not even close.  That doesn’t negate potential illegality but it should give us and our prosecutors pause.  In its zealousness to demonstrate it is tough on political corruption, the Legislature gave prosecutors the power to indict officials for practicing politics.  They have made criminal actions which may have previously resulted in a civil infraction.

As Treasurer, Cahill approved a spending binge for advertising during the campaign and overruled the original ad plan to focus on the Lottery as an institution.  And the effort failed. Spectacularly.  No bribery or kickbacks were involved.  Wads of cash weren’t shoved in his suit pocket. Voters had ample time to digest this all in 2010 and opted to send Tim Cahill home to Quincy.  Perhaps this should not be the end of the story.  But jail time?

Politicians are both political animals looking to the next election and they represent the offices they hold.  How can we fully divorce the two?  We can’t despite spending a serious amount of time trying.  The public official is also a politician.  You cannot escape that reality.

Until this matter is settled, I suspect our politicos will be much more careful about how they market the activities of their offices.  This may be a nice outcome of the Cahill story.  But make no mistake, they will still use their offices to take credit, advertise their accomplishments, and reach out to voters.  But they won’t be as foolish as Cahill’s staff in their use of emails to discuss the political needs and goals.  They will more closely follow the lead of poor old Martin Lomasney.  When last we checked, Professor Cunningham found him rolling over in his grave.  In light of the Cahill indictment I suspect these words will find new resonance: “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”  And never, under any circumstances, email.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
This entry was posted in Mass Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *