James Michael Coakley? ‘I Did It for a Friend’

An increasing cadre of Massachusetts politicians is showing up on what the Boston Herald terms “bombshell ‘sponsor’ lists” kept by the state Probation Department encompassing “stunning documents” detailing recommendation letters. So are politicians fleeing the frenzy?

Actually many of them proudly own up to their efforts to help constituents get jobs and some are utilizing my all-time favorite defense from James Michael Curley, the “I did it for a friend” excuse. The deftest channeler of The Rascal King has been none other than Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Let’s recall the Curley legend. In 1903 he was a candidate for the Boston Board of Aldermen when two illiterate Irish immigrants asked him and Thomas Curley (no relation) to take a civil service exam for them so they could get jobs as postal carriers. Reasoning that the two Irishmen were fully capable of walking the routes if not of reading the mail the Curleys took the exam, but unfortunately were recognized. They were charged and convicted of defrauding the United States. Historian Thomas H. O’Connor explained that instead of shrinking from the conviction Curley “glorified and romanticized it.” Just as the English corrupted life in Ireland, Curley ranted, Brahmin Yankees rigged the system here to keep the Boston Irish out of the jobs they desperately needed. Not only had Curley taken the test he preached to his unemployed Irish neighbors, he’d do it again because he’d “done it for a friend.”

To the delight of the Herald defense attorneys have been making the obvious public – politicians recommend constituents for jobs, some to the Probation Department. Mayor Marty Walsh did when he was a state representative, congressmen did it, Senator Scott Brown (as a state senator did it), former state senator now candidate for Congress Richard Tisei did it. Tisei had an interesting defense which went basically, ‘I had a district office, if someone walked in and asked I sent a letter, but I don’t know O’Brien at all and I doubt a letter from me would be any help anyway.’ Senator Ed Markey doesn’t remember making recommendations, etc.

Councilor Charles Yancey also doesn’t remember supporting a candidate but sure hopes the guy he recommended got the job. Councilor Steve Murphy says of course he made recommendations; he’s a city councilor, that’s his job. (High five to councilors Yancey and Murphy for candor).

So back to Attorney General Coakley, whose employment of the Curley defense is somewhat problematic since she already prosecuted John O’Brien (unsuccessfully). Among the job candidates she recommended were three women and the AG told the Herald that she found nothing wrong with supporting three young women for jobs (just as Curley found nothing wrong with helping the two hopeful Irish mail carriers). Take one case the AG addressed to the Herald:

“I had known them for 14 years,” Coakley said of the family, adding that the donations had “absolutely” no bearing on her recommendation. “They supported me in a race against Marty Walsh (for state representative), and in a race for district attorney. And they did that because they are my friends and they think that I am a good candidate.”

What I especially like about the Coakley defense is that she didn’t just do it for a friend, she did it for women. It’s a higher calling. So to diagram the Curley defense, “I did it for a friend (who happened to be a part of the constituency essential to my election).” To diagram the Coakley defense, “I did it for a friend (who happened to be a part of the constituency essential to my election).”

James Michael Coakley?





About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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4 Responses to James Michael Coakley? ‘I Did It for a Friend’

  1. Christopher says:

    Not sure they are the same. I don’t see anything wrong with writing a recommendation. Impersonating someone, however, is cheating and fraudulent. In general I’ve never understood the lionization of Curley. He’s always struck me as the poster child of political corruption.

  2. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    Christopher, As the Irish say, “Goddamn an eyewitness, he ruins a good story every time.” You are right, the instances are different in important respects. For one thing the Probation Dept. case brings together the nexus of legislators making recommendations, job seekers writing campaign checks to the pols, Probation favoring job candidates, and legislators favoring the department at budget time. Coakley, Markey et al. could not be part of that nexus because they had no budgetary power.

    On the other hand the responses of politicians has varied greatly. I like the honest responses of councilors Yancey and Murphy who basically say, ‘big deal, it’s my job to help constituents.’

    I do find it amusing that in the Probation case it seems some of the aspirants may not have been highly qualified. Yet every politician who has conceded he/she did recommendations describes their aspirants as highly qualified.

    As I mentioned the AG is in bit of a unique position for prosecuting O’Brien in a “politics as usual” case when she recommended constituents for jobs, part of “politics as usual.” I would add that the situations were different though, the AG’s case did not involve the nexus described above but a fundraiser O’Brien tossed for State Treasurer Tim Cahill, allegedly in exchange for a job for O’Brien’s wife. Not guilty.

    Coakley made much of the fact that her candidates were women, and she was helping women, still an under represented group in state government. A necessary corrective to an unfair system!

    But Curley’s argument comes down to a similar argument: the establishment stacked the deck against desperately poor Irish immigrants and he was merely supplying a necessary corrective to an unfair system! It was better theater than legal justification but it sure did work for Curley. Who cares about the legal definition of fraud when their children are cold and hungry? Thus the title of Curley’s autobiography, “I’d Do It Again!”

  3. Tim says:

    There is a more political angle to this story not being discussed. The word on the street was the House Speaker Bob DeLeo was going to take a big hit during the probation scandal that in particular would diminish his political against other MA political leaders. In particular this was supposed to be good for the capital P progressive wing of the party that dislikes DeLeo.

    This recent news may be of benefit to DeLeo through showing that “everyone” was on the take so to speak. I do have say Coakley involvement in this scandal was somewhat unexpected.

  4. Maurice T. Cunningham says:


    I really hope that no one would wish the agony of a possible indictment on a politician simply to advance a political position. Years ago I practiced law and saw the awful toll it takes on a person and their families too. Some folks unfortunately do violate the law and deserve what they get. But wishing this on someone to get a political adversary out of the way is wrong.

    This is a very complicated story and I wonder if there is a “scandal” at all. As for Coakley, Yancey, Murphy et al. there is no allegation they did much of anything but write recommendation letters. Part of the complication is that Coakley and others have been such critics of “politics as usual” when it appears they practiced some aspects of the supposed dark arts. It looks self-righteous.

    It is a real tangle with lots of ambiguities.

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