In a rare public rebuke of Attorney General William P. Barr by a current Department of Justice employee, a federal prosecutor in Boston wrote that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer “has brought shame” to the agency.
“While I am a federal prosecutor, I am writing to express my own views, clearly not those of the department, on a matter that should concern all citizens: the unprecedented politicization of the office of the attorney general,” James D. Herbert,assistant US attorney for Massachusetts, wrote in a letter published Thursday in the Globe.
Herbert, who described himself as a 30-year Justice Department employee, wrote that he was compelled to speak up after Barr gave a speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan on Sept. 16 in which he accused federal prosecutors of acting as “head hunters” in their pursuit of political and other high-profile targets.
Herbert criticized Barr for his handling of the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller, his intervention in cases against President Trump’s political allies, his comments about George Floyd, and “baseless claims” about voting by mail.
“The attorney general acts as though his job is to serve only the political interests of Donald J. Trump. This is a dangerous abuse of power,” Herbert wrote.
“William Barr has done the president’s bidding at every turn,” the letter said. “For 30 years I have been proud to say I work for the Department of Justice, but the current attorney general has brought shame on the department he purports to lead.”
Reached Saturday, Herbert, a Milton resident, declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling said Herbert’s letter doesn’t reflect the views of his office or the Justice Department.
“He has a right to free speech and he wrote that in his personal capacity,” said Christina DiIorio-Sterling, the spokeswoman.
Herbert’s letter has received international attention, receiving mentions in The New York Times and The Guardian, a British newspaper.
During his career as a federal prosecutor, Herbert has pursued cases against well-known organized crime figures including Catherine Greig, the girlfriend of James “Whitey” Bulger, Stephen J. Flemmi, and Raymond J. Patriarca, son of La Cosa Nostra crime boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca.
He was deputy chief of the criminal division under former US attorney Carmen Ortiz.
In 2004, Herbert was among a team of prosecutors honored by Attorney General John Ashcroft for their work investigating La Cosa Nostra and the Winter Hill Gang. Eight years later, Herbert was among a group of prosecutors honored by Attorney General Eric Holder with the Justice Department’s “Distinguished Service Award.”
Rosanna Cavallaro, a professor at Suffolk Law School, said Herbert’s letter is a rarity, but so is Barr’s politicization of the attorney general’s office.
“He should be free to speak on these matters,” she said. “Who else will call attention to them that has the perspective and the bona fides that he does?”
Cavallaro said Herbert’s letter is also notable because he works for Lelling, who has faced criticism over his prosecution of Shelley Joseph, the state district court judge accused of helping an undocumented defendant evade Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents.
Critics have said Joseph is being prosecuted because her alleged conduct challenged the Trump administration’s practice of sending ICE agents to state courthouses to make arrests.
“I don’t think every US attorney’s office is led by someone who is quite as eager to get the attention of the president as this US attorney has been,” Cavallaro said of Lelling.
Brian T. Kelly, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Herbert on organized crime cases, said he doesn’t remember his former colleague complaining when Holder described himself as former President Barack Obama’s “wingman.”
“He must be pretty confident that [Joe] Biden’s going to win or he’s going to be handling traffic cases for the next four years,” Kelly said.
Walter B. Prince, a former federal prosecutor, said he “loved” Herbert’s letter.
“It was just stating what all of us know and what all of us are seeing on a daily basis,” said Prince, now a partner at Prince Lobel Tye LLP. "We are seeing our country, we are seeing the office of the presidency be diminished. And we see the office of the attorney general, likewise, being diminished.
Prince reflected on working for the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts.
“I was so proud to be an assistant US attorney and being part of the Department of Justice, and to see what this administration has done to our precious institutions is heartbreaking,” he said. “If we love this country, we have to speak up.”