Few things in public life are more jolting than a stunning fall from grace by a prominent public official.
We’ve seen a number of them in Connecticut (a.k.a. Corrupticut), including Gov. John Rowland, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, state Rep. Ernie Newton and a list of Waterbury mayors too long to publish here. Most recently, we have the case of state Rep. Michael DiMassa, who pleaded guilty last year to stealing more than $1.2 million in federal coronavirus relief funds from the city of West Haven.
But few falls have been as pronounced and seemingly fatal as that recently suffered by a public figure in neighboring Massachusetts, where corruption is just as endemic in Boston as it is in Hartford. I’m referring, of course, to the spectacular “Rise and Fall of Rachael Rollins,” as a Boston Globe headline thundered last week, referring to the now-disgraced and since-resigned former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts.
The Globe has a pretty tight paywall, but there is also ample coverage in the paper’s free regional site, Boston.com. I worked in western Massachusetts as a journalist for nine years, ending with my retirement in 2022, so I maintain a keen interest in what happens in the state. Moreover, I think the Rollins case actually makes Connecticut look good by comparison. More on that in a moment.
Before being appointed U.S. attorney, Rollins was the elected district attorney for Suffolk County, which includes Boston. During her 2018 campaign, Rollins reduced the use of cash bail, and also promised to decriminalize offenses such as shoplifting, drug possession, wanton or malicious destruction of property, drug possession with intent to distribute, driving with a suspended or revoked driver’s license, and resisting arrest. During her brief tenure as DA, Rollins, a Democrat, became a leader in the movement for progressive reform in the criminal justice system.
Thus when President Joe Biden nominated her in 2019 for the post of U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Rollins was vulnerable during her Senate confirmation hearings to the charge of being “soft on crime.” Well duh …
Rollins’ nomination was held up by Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz. The latter called her a “radical” who wanted to “defund the police.” The confirmation vote was so close that Vice President Kamala Harris had to be called into the Senate chamber to break a 50-50 tie.
During her first few months in office, Rollins reportedly started breaking the rules governing the conduct of federal prosecutors. The inspector general’s office opened an investigation into her attendance, against the advice of those in her office, at a political fundraiser featuring First Lady Jill Biden and whether it violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits certain government workers such as Rollins from engaging in political activities.
The IG’s report released last week accused Rollins of improperly accepting gifts and travel reimbursements and lying under oath to federal investigators investigating her actions. As U.S. attorney, Rollins regularly used her personal cell phone for business and even continued to accept contributions to her district attorney campaign account.
Even more shocking was the finding in federal watchdog reports, released the day after her announced resignation, that Rollins attempted to “sabotage” the election to replace her as Suffolk DA, acting as a “de facto campaign advisor” to her favored candidate while leaking sensitive and unflattering information to the news media about his opponent.
This has also prompted some handwringing among the Boston press – and deservedly so – about being a party to grossly unethical behavior by a federal official, while raising valid questions about whether the local news media should have blown the whistle on her. This is to say nothing of the embarrassment suffered by the state’s two U.S. Senators, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, who naively championed Rollins’ nomination for her Justice Department post.
When I first heard about Rollins’ appointment as a federal prosecutor, I was skeptical. I’ve never been a fan of elected prosecutors to begin with. Most of them are political animals. Who could ever forget the case of Mike Nifong, the since-disbarred attorney, convicted criminal and elected DA for Durham County, North Carolina, who recklessly pursued rape charges against members of the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006. Nifong made baseless charges, mugged before the cameras at every available opportunity and proceeded with such incompetence that the case was finally taken over by the state attorney general, who dropped the charges.
I watched with dismay five years ago as a candidate with minimal trial experience who had never prosecuted a case in her life won election to become DA in Berkshire County, Mass. She committed a series of sloppy mistakes, made unethical moves, foolishly tried to oust a district court judge and turned her office into a political machine whose goal was to ensure her re-election, which voters mercifully denied, thanks in part to the county’s only surviving print newspaper.
There are plenty of appointed prosecutors who go on to have successful careers in politics (Richard Blumenthal and Daniel Goldman come immediately to mind). But that’s an easier transition to make. You can throw off the chains of impartiality and show your true colors after being elected to office. But completing that process in reverse imposes significant hurdles and requires great discipline. Bad habits need to be changed.
Fortunately, Connecticut is one of only three states – the others being Alaska and New Jersey – in which prosecutors are not elected (in the state of New York, even the vast majority of judges are elected). The 13 state’s attorneys, as they are known in Connecticut, are appointed based on merit by the state Criminal Justice Commission, which consists of six members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. As one of Connecticut’s six constitutional officers, the attorney general is elected but almost never prosecutes criminal cases.
As the recent hiring scandal involving now-retired Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr. makes clear, the appointed system isn’t perfect either, but it produces far less political grandstanding and reduces the temptation to make prosecutorial decisions based more on popular opinion than on the law.
How about that? It has been suggested that tiny Connecticut suffers from an inferiority complex, situated as we are between Boston and New York. On the matter of how we choose our prosecutors, however, we’re a cut above almost all the others.