On Tuesday morning, amid much fanfare, US Attorney Andrew Lelling announced the indictment of state Representative David Nangle of Lowell.
Nangle stands accused of the kind of corruption that reform-minded investigators have feasted on for years.
According to the indictment, he used campaign funds to pay for everything from meals to golf club dues to gambling debts. He allegedly created a bogus consulting job to cheat on his taxes. In a move any Beacon Hill veteran would recognize, he placed an unnamed co-conspirator on the state payroll, and enlisted this chump to help him cheat via TurboTax.
(When the patsy complained, the indictment says, Nangle assured him he would be the one to pay any penalty. Lelling and company would never miss a chance to place a line like that prominently in the public record.)
As the US attorney’s office in Boston was diligently performing the standard duties of federal prosecutors, the nation’s highest-ranking official — the president of the United States — was busy, too. Only he was busy pursuing a very different vision of justice.
Trump was busy commuting the sentences of a rogue’s gallery of convicted criminals: Wall Street swindler Michael Milken, former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., and former New York City police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik. He even commuted the sentence of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who had been serving time for attempting to sell Barack Obama’s US Senate seat to the highest bidder.
There is a longstanding pardon application process at the White House, but Trump appears to be guided by his own principles. Chief among them is that wealthy or well-connected Republicans are exempt from conventional notions of justice. Prisons are for the rest of us.
Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, Nangle appeared in court Tuesday afternoon to plead not guilty to 28 federal charges that were announced by Trump’s appointed US attorney. Nangle’s arrest came as a shock on Beacon Hill, where he had been a mainstay of the House Commission on Ethics, standing in judgment of morally wayward peers.
"If the allegations in the indictment are true, it is safe to say that Representative Nangle has violated the public trust and especially the trust of constituents who donated to his campaign fund,“ Lelling told reporters in a morning news conference.
Nangle was released after appearing shackled at his arraignment.
If — big if — Nangle is guilty of the charges that have been levied against him, he deserves whatever he gets. The state’s campaign finance law doesn’t allow for the kind of shenanigans Nangle was alleged to have engaged in. And he certainly gets no pass for cheating on his taxes, to boot.
But justice is in a strange place when the same federal government that aggressively pursues some criminals extends a golden handshake to others. I’m not talking about the people who traditionally make strong candidates for clemency, like those who have served exceptionally long sentences, or were convicted under questionable circumstances, or seem to be dying. I would support many of those clemency petitions.
But it’s something else to release people from prison for no reason other than than the president always liked them, or never thought what they did was all that big a deal. Justice is supposed to apply equally to all of us. Yes, our system has often or maybe always failed to meet that standard. Nevertheless, that’s supposed to be the aspiration, the social contract we all bought into.
The government may well be right in asserting that David Nangle is just the latest in a long line of State House powerbrokers and would-be powerbrokers who believed the law didn’t apply to him.
But if I’m Andrew Lelling, I’m squirming a little. Because even as people in the trenches like him are doing what they believe they were enlisted to do, a parallel one-man justice system in Washington is doing just the opposite, and the contradictions are deeply troubling.
I doubt this was ever covered in law school.