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Rollins is in the final stages of being vetted for US attorney

Discussion of her potential successor already underway

DA Rachael Rollins has championed reforms that would effectively decriminalize many nonviolent, low-level crimes.
DA Rachael Rollins has championed reforms that would effectively decriminalize many nonviolent, low-level crimes.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins is undergoing FBI background checks, the final step before she can be nominated to be the next United States attorney for the district of Massachusetts, according to a person briefed on the process.

Rollins is one of three finalists for the job, but the FBI has focused only on Rollins, the person said. The two other candidates, both experienced federal prosecutors, have heard nothing since they were interviewed by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey in mid-January, multiple people said.

If she is appointed, Rollins would become the first Black woman to become the top federal law enforcement official in Massachusetts, overseeing more than 200 federal prosecutors. The previous US attorney, Andrew Lelling, made national headlines, leading the Varsity Blues investigation into fraudulent college applications by children of the rich and famous.

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Through a spokesman, Rollins did not respond to questions about details of the selection process and said she’s concentrating on her job as district attorney.

“DA Rollins and several other qualified candidates are being considered for US attorney,” said her spokesman Matthew Brelis. “This is not news. The DA has said it is an incredible honor to even be in the running for the position.”

If Rollins clears the FBI background check, she would then need to be formally nominated by President Biden and would require Senate approval before taking the post.

Thomas Glynn, the former CEO of Massport, where Rollins was the general counsel from 2013 to 2015, said she would bring a valuable breadth of experience to the job as US attorney.

“She has become a national spokesperson for criminal justice reform,” he added. “She has executed on the things she ran on.”

Rollins has made a name for herself since becoming the first Black woman elected district attorney in Massachusetts in 2018, beating four other candidates including a longtime prosecutor who had the backing of police as well as the outgoing district attorney.

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She has championed reforms that would effectively decriminalize many nonviolent, low-level crimes, arguing that they lead to needless incarcerations, especially for people of color. She has also shown a willingness to vacate wrongful convictions as well as thousands of convictions based on the lab testing of disgraced former state chemists Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak.

She’s part of a crop of progressive prosecutors whose willingness to take on powerful law enforcement interests from police to fellow prosecutors has endeared her to a loyal base of supporters.

Her bluntness has occasionally resulted in controversy, as when she publicly criticized public defenders as mostly white privileged lawyers who don’t work hard for their clients. Earlier this year, she was investigated and cleared by the state attorney general and ethics commission for an encounter with another driver in a mall parking lot.

If Rollins does move to the US attorney post, Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, would name her acting successor, who would serve until her term ends in 2022.

Rollins has advocated for Daniel Mulhern, her first assistant, according to someone with direct knowledge. She lashed out on Twitter on April 15 when someone suggested in a tweet she was leaving and the job was going to Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty.

“Sad world we live in when fools — who can’t spell my name correctly & don’t know me — speak & people listen. FYI, when DA’s leave, at least all the men that did before I was elected” virtually tell the governor who should replace them, Rollins tweeted.

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Rollins’s predecessor Dan Conley did in fact recommend three potential acting district attorneys when he left office three months before his term ended in 2018, and Baker chose one. However, Conley’s two predecessors did not choose their successors, prosecutors say.

Baker has said nothing about who would replace Rollins, with whom he has clashed in the past. They have had a strained relationship since Baker criticized her policy of not prosecuting certain crimes and she suggested that Baker’s son was given special treatment when he was accused of touching a woman on a plane.

Among those mentioned by political observers as possible candidates for the job are Flaherty, a former prosecutor and longtime city councilor, and Rahsaan Hall, a former county prosecutor who works at the ACLU of Massachusetts and is an activist in the Black community.

Flaherty, reached while he was en route to the Boston Election Department to pick up nomination papers, said he is not thinking about the Suffolk prosecutor’s job now. “The only thing I am focused on right now is the equitable recovery of our city from COVID and my reelection to the Boston City Council at-large,” he said.

Hall could not be reached for comment.

The US attorney’s office, according to people who work there, is a much more controlled environment than the DA’s office. The district attorney answers only to voters, while federal prosecutors are part of the Department of Justice, reporting to US Attorney General Merrick Garland.

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Earlier in her career, Rollins was an assistant US attorney.

If she becomes US attorney, Rollins could find herself on the opposite side from her position as Suffolk DA. Rollins and Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan sued immigration officials in 2019, seeking to bar the agency from arresting people while they are appearing in court. As US attorney, Rollins would have to defend Immigration and Customs Enforcement and oversee the prosecution of two court officials who allegedly allowed a defendant to flee to avoid an ICE agent.

Glynn acknowledged that Rollins would have to adjust to being a cog in a gigantic organization after being her own boss for several years.

“I would remind people that [former Governor] Bill Weld was US attorney and he was able to establish his voice in this large organization,” Glynn said. “There is a balancing act. She is who she is and makes no secret of it. The people who appoint her understand she’s an excellent spokesperson for criminal justice reform.”

When the Biden administration asked senators in December to submit names of candidates for US attorney, White House counsel Dana Remus made it clear the new president was looking for a diverse applicant pool, saying the president wanted “talented individuals who would bring to these critically important roles a wide range of life and professional experiences, including those based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, veteran status, and disability.”

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The two other finalists are Jennifer Serafyn, head of the civil rights unit in the US attorney’s office, and Deepika Bains Shukla, who heads the US attorney’s office in Springfield.


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.