Michael E. McLaughlin, former executive director of the Chelsea Housing Authority, could face a harsh prison sentence Friday if the judge believes a new allegation that McLaughlin attempted to obstruct a corruption investigation by ordering his personnel records destroyed.
He was already facing the possibility of 12 to 18 months in federal prison under a January plea agreement in which he admitted concealing his inflated $360,000 salary from the state and federal agencies that funded and oversaw the housing authority.
But in a memo this week to US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, prosecutors said they later discovered that McLaughlin apparently told a former housing authority employee in 2012, a year after he was forced to resign, to destroy timecards that may have been used to justify his pay. The new allegation could add to his sentence if the judge decides to pursue the matter.
“By any conceivable measure, the defendant’s compensation was grossly disproportionate to any reasonable amount which the public has a right to expect to pay its employees,” wrote Assistant US Attorney Theodore Merritt. “Sending the defendant to prison for his manipulative and deceptive conduct is necessary to promote respect for the law and deter others who may be tempted to use such means to conceal their fleecing of the public trust.”
McLaughlin’s lawyer, Thomas Hoopes, will argue for probation at a sentencing hearing Friday.
McLaughlin, 67, a longtime public servant with no criminal record, poses no public safety risk, Hoopes wrote in a 35-page sentencing memorandum. In addition, he said, McLaughlin is “irreplaceable” and “indispensable” in the care of his bedridden wife, who suffers from Alzheimer's-like symptoms and cannot be left alone.
None of McLaughlin’s children can care for their mother, Donna, not even Michael Jr., who lives with his parents. McLaughlin Jr. cannot hear his mother’s seizures at night because he sleeps with a sleep apnea machine, Hoopes wrote.
“If Mr. McLaughlin is no longer able to care for his wife, Mrs. McLaughlin would have to be institutionalized,” he wrote.
Prosecutors countered that McLaughlin has left his wife alone frequently, adding that the state inspector general documented that McLaughlin traveled outside the state at least 85 days in 2011. The Globe has reported that many of those days were spent in Florida with a female employee.
The dueling memos are part of a drama that began in 2011 when the Globe reported that McLaughlin was hiding more than half of his housing authority salary and that he was one of the highest paid public housing officials in the country.
Since then, investigators have discovered that millions of dollars were diverted from apartment modernization projects under McLaughlin and remain unaccounted for, infuriating Chelsea tenants.
“There is widespread belief that he should serve time in jail as a message to others in government that abuse of the public trust will not be tolerated,” said Thomas Standish, who became chairman of the board after McLaughlin’s resignation.
“Certainly, the tenants are up in arms over what they believe is too lenient a sentence being recommended for McLaughlin,” he added.
Under McLaughlin’s plea agreement, he was required to assist prosecutors as they continued to investigate corruption related to the housing authority. In turn, prosecutors agreed not to use any information he provided against him.
It is unclear how much McLaughlin helped investigators, but his attorney said he has done enough.
McLaughlin “has addressed the issues surrounding his cooperation with law enforcement in documents filed under seal,” Hoopes wrote.
A federal grand jury has been looking into whether McLaughlin was improperly tipped off about “surprise” federal housing inspections, allowing him to achieve the highest possible scores even though the buildings were poorly maintained.
Separately, a state grand jury has been investigating McLaughlin’s fund-raising on behalf of politicians including former lieutenant governor Timothy P. Murray.
Prosecutors say they learned that McLaughlin told former Housing Authority senior accountant James McNichols to destroy personnel records after they had agreed to recommend 12 to 18 months of prison time. In their memo, prosecutors said they are not seeking more prison time, but wanted Woodlock to be aware of the allegations.
Even so, Woodlock could order a hearing and call in McNichols, who has said he destroyed documents at McLaughlin’s direction. In that case, Hoopes will try to discredit McNichols by arguing that McNichols has “acknowledged lying” to investigators.
Meanwhile, Chelsea tenants have asked the judge to recognize them as victims who should be compensated for McLaughlin’s misdeeds. The residents have asked Woodlock to require McLaughlin to pay them $548,192, an amount equal to the overpayments made to McLaughlin from 2008 to 2011.
“While [McLaughlin] lined his pockets with hundreds of thousands of dollars, we have lived with roaches and rats and in unsafe housing,” read a March letter to US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz signed by 350 Chelsea housing tenants.
Neither the prosecutor nor McLaughlin’s lawyer is recommending restitution to tenants.
In addition to jail time, prosecutors are recommending 24 months of probation, a $4,000 fine, and a $400 special assessment. McLaughlin will forfeit his pension, which would have been one of the state’s largest if based on his $360,000 salary, according to Hoopes’s memo.