WHILE MASSACHUSETTS prohibits elected officials from using public resources for political gain, it’s difficult to run afoul of that law, for many incumbents’ official duties give them cover to promote themselves at public expense. So however unsettling it was to learn that aides to Treasurer Tim Cahill’s gubernatorial campaign matter-of-factly discussed the use of state Lottery ads to boost Cahill’s image, it wasn’t surprising.
Many common practices would violate the strictest interpretation of the state ban. Cahill’s name is prominent in official advertising touting the names of people who can claim money from inactive bank accounts. Secretary of State William Galvin’s name appears on the bright red cover of guidebooks mailed to voters around the state. When Tom Menino leaves office as mayor of Boston, simply removing his name from city signs will take no small effort.
Recent Lottery TV and radio ads have become the center of controversy in a particularly ugly way. Last week, Cahill sued four members of his political team — including campaign manager Adam Meldrum — for helping to engineer his running mate’s defection.
The former aides maintain that the suit is just a ploy to keep them from revealing illegal collusion between the Cahill campaign and officials at the Lottery. Because the state treasurer oversees the Lottery, recent ads touting its benefits to cities and towns could produce political benefits for Cahill, even if he’s not mentioned. “That’s the result of a consistently well-managed Lottery,’’ the script goes. “And luck has nothing to do with it.’’
While Lottery officials deny that the Cahill campaign exerted pressure, it’s clear that consultant Dane Strother, who’s still with the campaign, saw them as a strategic asset. Of course, the defectors were hardly vocal in their opposition when the subject first came up. According to transcripts filed with the court, Strother told Meldrum in a July text message, “I just got the go ahead on everything we discussed. Yes on lottery ads and he has plenty of money. Yes on stepped up fundraising. Yes on going negative.’’ Meldrum’s reply to all of this was simple — and hardly indignant — “Yes!’’
The state attorney general’s office should investigate whether any illegal collusion occurred. That may be hard to prove, because the spot in question has run off and on for several years. For now, it’s just another unfortunate distraction from a serious discussion of the issues facing the state.