For too long, the Massachusetts State Police were untouchable. US Attorney Andrew Lelling, an appointee of President Trump, changed that, pursuing corruption cases against troopers and calling overdue attention to the need for cultural change at the agency. With the change of administrations in Washington, Lelling’s tenure will probably soon end, but whoever President-elect Joe Biden appoints should pick up where he left off.
Lelling’s latest strike against State Police corruption came earlier this month, when two retired State Police supervisors were arrested and charged in federal court with conspiracy, embezzlement, and wire fraud in connection with an overtime scheme that dates back to 2015. It’s the second serious case of widespread overtime fraud uncovered by Lelling’s office. A previous investigation found that several dozen troopers collected large sums of taxpayer dollars for hours they never worked. That led to the prosecution of seven troopers and one supervisor, who all pleaded guilty to a variety of charges that boil down to stealing money from the public.
Although it’s not unheard of for presidents to keep some of their predecessor’s US attorneys, it appears Lelling won’t be one of them. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey recently announced creation of a bipartisan committee, helmed by Lelling critic Nancy Gertner, to review and provide recommendations for the state’s next top federal law enforcement officer. That person should be as willing as Lelling to take on the State Police, and call out this mess for what it is: a culture problem that still needs fixing.
At a press conference called to announce the most recent charges, Lelling put it this way: “For troopers to engage in this, they have to be operating in a culture where it seems OK to do it. That’s the problem. Removing that culture is how you mitigate this kind of problem in the future. We’re going to keep doing these cases until this kind of behavior stops. Either internally at the State Police, they can take proactive steps to make sure their troopers aren’t doing this, or I can do it.”
This year, Governor Charlie Baker is seeking some important changes to state law that could finally start a long-overdue attitude adjustment in that agency. The changes would allow him to appoint an outsider to head the State Police, put a new commission in charge of State Police training, and make it a crime to “knowingly” submit a false timesheet.
But Baker has never really confronted the extent of the current culture problem. Neither has Attorney General Maura Healey. When she investigated a large-scale destruction of State Police records that might have implicated more troopers, she decided what was uncovered did not support criminal charges. That’s anything but an incentive for change.
In the latest cases brought by Lelling, retired State Police lieutenant Daniel J. Griffin, 57, of Belmont, and retired sergeant William M. Robertson, 58, of Westborough, were charged with theft of federal funds and wire fraud. Griffin faces additional charges for allegedly defrauding a private school in Belmont by underreporting his assets and income to get financial aid. Both men pleaded not guilty. Both Griffin and Robertson retired in September and filed for pension payments, which have not yet been issued.
The federal indictment outlines a rogue unit consisting of the two supervisors and three unnamed troopers who operated right out of State Police headquarters and collected a total of $132,000 in overtime pay for no-show shifts between 2015 and 2018. This scheme predates the appointment of Colonel Christopher Mason, in November 2019, to head the State Police. But with some, the culture of arrogance prevails. As cited in the indictment, it’s reflected in the words Griffin allegedly spoke to a trooper last fall when he learned federal investigators were asking questions: “Don’t tell them (expletive) anything.”
In response to the indictments of Griffin and Robertson, Mason issued a statement to the Globe that said the department has taken steps to reform itself, through regular payroll audits and expanded internal investigations. In a recent Globe opinion piece, Corey J. Mackey, who took over as head of the State Police Association of Massachusetts in September 2019, also argued that the union has embraced reforms that media reports “fail to acknowledge.”
Perhaps that’s true. But if a major culture shift has occurred, it has not been communicated to the public — nor to Lelling. The next US attorney should keep the heat on until there’s data to back up the alleged transformation of a scandal-ridden law enforcement agency to one that’s worthy of the public trust.
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