Like a speeding motorist on the Mass. Pike, state officials are rushing to put the State Police payroll abuse scandal in the rearview mirror. But as a trooper with a radar gun might say: Not so fast.
There‘s growing evidence that justice has not yet been done for Massachusetts taxpayers and motorists — who were, after all, the victims in the overlapping ticket-quota, overtime abuse, and evidence-destruction scandals at the state’s premier law enforcement agency.
If the state can‘t police its police, then federal prosecutors ought to take a hard look at stepping up their probe, as a federal judge recently ordered.
According to reporting by the Globe’s Matt Rocheleau, the scams apparently go back years and were tolerated or even devised by supervisors. Troopers bilked taxpayers by billing for overtime hours they never worked and operated a ticket-quota system, which is illegal in Massachusetts. Even after investigations began, the State Police destroyed payroll records that might have incriminated troopers, showing how little the agency fears its supposed overseers on Beacon Hill.
True, some troopers have been convicted, and the state has taken steps to fix the agency’s management and culture. In November, Governor Charlie Baker named Christopher Mason to take over as State Police head, following the retirement of Colonel Kerry Gilpin.
The question then, and now, is how independent an insider like Mason can be. Showing some willingness to step up to the challenge, Mason recently announced plans to fire 22 troopers and strip the pensions of another 14 recent retirees. Mason also said the department will demand that troopers reimburse taxpayer — dollar for dollar — for the pay they received for no-show shifts. However, he presented that outcome as a way to close the books on the agency’s internal investigation into payroll abuse. And State Police won’t disclose the total restitution being sought.
Attorney General Maura Healey also seems eager to put the State Police scandal behind her. She recently announced she was shutting down an investigation into overtime abuse that led to indictments against three lieutenants. Two resolved their cases by pleading guilty and were sentenced to probation. The third case is pending in Suffolk Superior Court. In a letter to the Division of State Police Oversight — an audit unit of the state Inspector General’s office — the attorney general’s office said it was turning over testimony and other evidence that may be “of assistance to you in making recommendations for systemic changes.” A spokeswoman for Healey said if any additional evidence is uncovered that “sheds light on our investigation, we will certainly reevaluate whether additional indictments are warranted.”
But recently revealed court filings suggest systemic wrongdoing. A grand jury witness said the overtime-for-tickets deal was common knowledge stretching back to the 1990s. “I have something I want done," said a former State Police official, referring to the state’s desire for troopers to generate high-value speeding tickets on the Mass Pike. “If you do it for me, I’ll pay you four hours of overtime.”
Meanwhile, the federal probe remains open, and US District Judge Mark L. Wolf is now ordering prosecutors to consider whether the overtime fraud scandal amounted to a criminal conspiracy. Wolf, who has raised the criminal conspiracy question before, is apparently done with gentle nudges. In a filing related to the case of former trooper Daren DeJong, Wolf wrote, “There are many facts that suggest that DeJong’s criminal conduct in this case was part of a conspiracy.” Wolf presides over cases involving nine people, including DeJong, who have pleaded guilty to criminal charges. If those cases were treated as a criminal conspiracy, that could mean more serious charges, with more serious penalties. However, citing insufficient evidence, federal prosecutors have so far declined to do that. What’s actually going on is a little murky.
According to Mason, federal prosecutors referred cases back to his agency for administrative discipline. However, a spokeswoman for US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling denied that, telling the Globe, “That is incorrect. There have been no ‘referrals’ in either direction. This is an independent investigation by federal authorities.” The spokeswoman also disputed another favorite theme sounded by Baker and State Police leadership, that the federal investigation began with a State Police referral.
Baker recently proposed legislation that he said would bring about systemic culture change. One key element would remove the current requirement that the governor choose a State Police leader from within the department; another would be to make it easier to discipline troopers for egregious violations. Making that happen on Beacon Hill takes more than filing a bill. It takes a real push from the governor’s office and cooperation from legislative leaders.
Meanwhile, the best way to prevent the next scandal is to ensure full accountability for this one. That, not turning the page, should be the priority.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.