Once again it has fallen to the US attorney’s office to pursue political corruption charges in this state. And once again that raises the question: Is it just that the feds have better legal tools at their disposal, or is there a failure to prioritize the pursuit of such corruption at other levels of government?
This time the allegations involve state Representative David M. Nangle of Lowell, a former chair of the House Ethics Committee, indicted on a host of charges involving the misuse of thousands of dollars in campaign funds to pay personal expenses, “double-dipping” on expenses incurred as a legislator, and tax evasion.
But it has also been US Attorney Andrew Lelling who pursued charges against dozens of state police in the overtime abuse scandal, indicted the then-mayor of Fall River for extortion in connection with the awarding of pot shop host-community agreements (a probe of other host-community agreements is reportedly ongoing), secured the conviction of two Boston City Hall officials on extortion charges (convictions recently overturned by a federal judge), and secured a guilty plea on bribery charges of a high ranking employee of the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
In overturning the jury verdict in the so-called Boston Calling case, US District Court Judge Leo T. Sorokin found that “Neither [Ken] Brissette nor [Tim] Sullivan received a personal payoff or any other cognizable benefit in connection with the charged conduct.”
And because no money changed hands, the judge wrote, “The Hobbs Act [on extortion] does not empower federal prosecutors to use the criminal law to enforce a contract, a state code of conduct that itself has no criminal or even civil penalties, or a local government policy.”
Lelling has not yet announced whether he will appeal that ruling. He certainly should. When 12 jurors find that they know public corruption when they see it, their findings ought to count for something.
But this latest federal corruption charge against a state politician points to the obvious fact that somehow state and local laws and/or the officials who enforce them are not adequate to ferret out misconduct by those entrusted to do the public’s business.
Not so, insists a spokesperson for Attorney General Maura Healey: “Going after public corruption continues to be an important mission of this office."
But this one went right to the FBI. And, in fact, according to the indictment, Nangle went to great lengths to falsify his reports to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance and the State Ethics Commission.
“Corruption can be easy and tempting for state-level elected officials, but here state Representative Nangle went beyond that,” Lelling said at a news conference. “This was not a momentary loss of judgment or a technical foul. This was a systematic pattern of theft and fraud going back to at least 2014.”
The indictment noted that much of the conduct Nangle engaged in was “to sustain his gambling activities and keep himself afloat financially.”
But perhaps the most damning part of the indictment dealt with the accusation that Nangle got a $7,000 loan from a Tyngsborough contractor, which he never repaid, and received some $8,000 in home repairs from that same contractor, also not paid for. However, the contractor, according to the indictment, did win “lucrative bids for construction projects for which NANGLE had secured state funding.”
Now that’s the bit that taxpayers ought to be particularly outraged about. That, if proven, is the real cost of public corruption.
And this from a member of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team, a member of the House Ethics and Rules Committee, and a member of the House for two decades.
Massachusetts has seen more than its share of political corruption over the years — and more often than not it has been prosecuted at the federal level. Wire fraud, bank fraud, tax fraud are all part of a federal prosecutor’s toolbox. But fighting public corruption shouldn’t always mean making it a federal case. State and city leaders should also be willing to hold public servants to higher ethical standards.
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