The Globe Swings and Misses

Last week's story on Martha Coakley's campaign finance co-chair Elyse Cherry is straight from the Herald’s playbook.

martha coakley

Associated Press

When you boil it all down, the story is that perhaps Martha Coakley was not open enough about something that she was putting in press releases and Facebook posts. Which, if you ask me, is not something the state’s dominant news outlet should throw on the front page less than three weeks before the election.

I’m speaking, of course, about last weeks’s Boston Globe article by fine journalist Andrea Estes, on Attorney General Coakley’s campaign finance co-chair Elyse Cherry, who is CEO of Boston Community Capital (BCC).

You might think that the article suggested that Cherry might benefit personally from a lawsuit recently brought by Coakley’s office. That misconception is understandable: the Globe even fooled itself. The first sentence of the Globe‘s second-day story on Friday says that “Coakley’s lawsuit… could directly benefit [Cherry].”

In fact, there is literally no such allegation in the Estes article. The first mention of any personal benefit, in paragraph four, is in the form of denials: “[Coakley] said she wasn’t trying to give a personal benefit to Cherry… Cherry said the lawsuit wouldn’t increase her pay or her organization’s income.”

Nine paragraphs later comes the second, and final, allusion to Cherry benefiting—again, in the form of a denial of a claim never actually made: “Cherry said the program has no effect on her salary.”

This second denial comes immediately after critic Bruce Marks, in separate comments, claims that BCC “boosts the resale price” of the foreclosed homes it buys and sells back to the original mortgage holders; and, complains that BCC pays Cherry too high a salary.

By juxtaposing those two comments and the Cherry denial, the article gives the impression that Marks has alleged that Cherry is pocketing some of the markup price. Nothing in the actual text, however, indicates that he said so, or that anybody said so, or that anybody has any reason to think so. The article never even posits a theory for how Cherry might have, hypothetically, made money from the program, or could, hypothetically, make money off of the program in future if Coakley’s lawsuit prevails.

The article comes closer to alleging that BCC might be improperly benefiting from the program, much lower in the article, reporting that Marks “is skeptical that Cherry’s group doesn’t generate surplus revenue.” Nothing further is offered in support of his skepticism.

As for Marks’s criticisms of the policy of selling mortgages back to the foreclosed owners, well, yes, the idea has its critics. And maybe they’re right. But overall it’s a very popular approach, not only passed into law by the state legislature but also endorsed by the federal government, which forced financial institutions to participate as part of the post-meltdown settlement. Frankly, it would be surprising if Coakley had not followed through with a lawsuit upon learning of the federal agencies’ non-compliance.

So, what we have here is the rather common occurrence of a financial backer—albeit in this case one in a prominent campaign position—whose organization’s policy interest is shared by the candidate.

This kind of relationship should rightly be looked at and reported on by media watchdogs, and good on Estes for doing so in a fairly rigorous way. I find it interesting that one of Coakley’s single biggest sources of campaign contributions in this election cycle is employees of EMC Corp., whose executives, and particularly CEO Joseph Tucci, have taken quite a shine to the AG ever since she intervened to get the company exempted from regulations in the Green Communities Act. One might even posit that Tucci, who owns some two million shares of EMC, could personally benefit from the many, many millions of cost savings at stake for the company.

I can’t tell you if that’s a corrupt quid pro quo, or company executives impressed and grateful that Coakley addressed their legitimate problem despite criticism from environmental groups. I can tell you that it’s a pretty extreme example of what you’ll find in almost every campaign finance report, and as an extreme example, it’s worth looking at and reporting on.

The Cherry example, by contrast, is pretty low on the scale of red flags for quid pro quo concerns. Nobody in the article, and nobody at all to my knowledge, has actually alleged that Coakley filed the lawsuit at the behest of Cherry. It doesn’t appear that Cherry is raising Coakley money primarily from BCC and other advocates of the program. Coakley has also championed other interests close to Cherry’s heart, most notably LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. And, as Estes notes, Cherry has been a financial backer of Coakley’s for years—in fact, from before the foreclosure crisis even hit, and the two have been openly collaborating on this foreclosure issue for nearly as long. (Here’s a fun throwback to Coakley, Cherry, and Marks discussing approaches on an April, 2010 Callie Crossley Show episode.)

Unfortunately, whoever put together the grossly misleading accompanying timeline on the Globe website did not share Estes’s concern for context. The timeline omits all pre-2013 contributions and campaign efforts of Cherry’s, making it appear that her largesse began immediately after Coakley’s involvement in this particular foreclosure conflict. Worse, the timeline omits the event that actually prompted the AG’s office to act—Paul McMorrow’s May 2014 Globe column revealing the federal government’s non-compliance—and other related items. The result is nothing but Cherry campaign activities leading up to Coakley filing the lawsuit in June, and nothing but Cherry campaign activities after.

Let’s be honest: Nobody thinks that there is anything dirty about Coakley bringing the lawsuit. That’s why the one thing being harped upon by Charlie Baker, the Massachusetts Republican Party, and others is the one actual allegation of Coakley misbehavior in the Estes article: her failure to file a conflict of interest disclosure.

It’s pretty clear that she was not required to do so. But one can take the opposing interpretation stated in the article by Common Cause’s Pam Wilmot, or argue that Coakley should have done so anyway out of an abundance of concern for transparency.

But even if you take that view, it’s hard to paint it as anything but a paperwork failure. The point of such disclosures are to prevent an officeholder from trying to conceal the potentially conflicting relationship; as I began this post saying, Coakley has done just the opposite. The campaign has put out press releases with Cherry’s name, included her in posts on the website, distributed invitations to fundraisers hosted by Cherry, and tweeted photos of Cherry speaking on Coakley’s behalf.

So at worst, what we have is that Coakley, in addition to the required disclosures and other public acknowledgements she made on a routine basis, failed to make an extra disclosure of her well-known, long-standing relationship with Cherry, which nobody is claiming influenced a decision that nobody is claiming benefited Cherry.

Which might be worth reporting on, and, in fact, was hashed out in industry publications at the time of the lawsuit. But to slap it on the front page of the Globe 20 days before the election, giving the impression of a major scandal revealed about one of the candidates, seems awfully irresponsible. Positively Herald-esque, in fact.