Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh breezed through a Senate committee hearing and vote in early February with no mention of a brewing police scandal back home.
It was then, with Walsh’s confirmation as secretary of labor all but assured, that the mayor’s closest political confidante stopped an investigation into decades-old domestic violence allegations against Walsh’s new police commissioner, Dennis A. White. The commissioner’s attorney then got big news in a phone call with the confidante, city attorney Eugene O’Flaherty.
“It was my clear understanding that Mayor Walsh intended to reinstate Commissioner White,” White’s attorney, Nicholas B. Carter, recounted in a March 2 letter to the city, a claim that he backed with a log showing calls to and from O’Flaherty.
The effort to reinstate White faltered, the probe restarted, and ultimately concluded two weeks ago in a report that now threatens to taint Walsh’s mayoral legacy and permanently change the practices of the nation’s oldest police department.
The investigation produced a 19-page document that went far beyond the commissioner’s alleged violence against women, depicting mistakes by Walsh that compounded his initial failure to vet the commissioner, as well as a law enforcement agency that considered itself above the law and refused at the highest ranks to cooperate. It underscored Walsh’s reticence to relinquish his power as mayor, his tendency to promote from within, and his loyalty to the Police Department.
“These are unforced errors. He didn’t have to appoint Dennis White,” said professor Daniel S. Medwed, who teaches criminal law at Northeastern University. “Was this kind of benign neglect because he was focused on D.C.? I don’t know, but it is troubling.”
In the rush to contain the controversy, the Walsh administration mismanaged the response to a haphazard commissioner selection, which included no candidate vetting or national search, according to a review of city records, legal filings, and interviews with current and former city officials, lawyers, and law enforcement experts.
The fallout has plunged police headquarters into uncertainty and reverberated from City Hall to Washington where Walsh now serves as labor secretary. Walsh declined to comment.
At the outset, Walsh tried to limit the scandal by refusing to release records that would have revealed — before his Senate confirmation vote — that White had faced a second allegation of violence against a woman when he had been accused in 1993 of striking a 19-year-old.
When the administration took action and suspended White, City Hall never formally sent him a letter outlining the terms of his suspension — a mistake at issue in a so far unsuccessful civil suit in which White has tried to block his removal. It was a stark contrast to the case of another top Walsh official accused of misconduct, Felix G. Arroyo, who was told in writing, records show, that he was “prohibited from having contact with any City employees.”
White has acknowledged making four appearances at police headquarters during his suspension, an unusual move that allowed him to potentially use the power of his position to influence or intimidate witnesses, according to Acting Mayor Kim Janey. White has denied any such motive for his presence at police headquarters, but he appeared via Zoom from the commissioner’s office for his interview with the city investigator, attorney Tamsin Kaplan.
“He cloaked himself with the power of the Police Department by having his interview from there,” said attorney Andrea Kramer, a lawyer who is pushing legislation to protect domestic violence victims from workplace discrimination.
White’s attorney said that the commissioner “never intimidated any BPD employee” and that the city never barred him from his office. In fact, the city continued to provide White a security detail, “so he obviously was going to have communications with BPD employees,” Carter said in an e-mail.
The report described a startling lack of cooperation from police and an effort to undercut the investigation. Walsh never ordered White or other officers to cooperate with the probe. (Janey did communicate to White that she expected him to cooperate.)
Walsh did not respond to the Globe’s questions sent to him at the Department of Labor. In a statement earlier this month, a Labor spokesperson said that in February when the probe was halted, Walsh had only requested an “update on the status of the investigation.” The statement was contradicted by the report released by the Janey administration and other records, including e-mails sent at the time by Kaplan, the outside investigator.
O’Flaherty, who also did not respond to requests for comment, left city government shortly before Walsh departed. Two days after Walsh’s March 22 confirmation, lobbying firm Ballard Partners announced it had hired O’Flaherty, who, federal disclosure records show, is being paid to try to exert influence at the Department of Labor and elsewhere.
White has vehemently denied decades-old allegations that he abused his former wife, a fellow police officer, or the 19-year-old woman, who briefly lived at his family’s home. White was never charged criminally. In a 14-page affidavit signed last week, he wrote that the investigator’s report released by the Janey administration “has had a [devastating] effect on me” and is “filled with false allegations of the most serious nature.”
“The Acting Mayor has completely destroyed Dennis White’s reputation,” Carter said in an e-mail, adding that there has been “a rush to judgment” and Janey should “not have published the investigator’s report prior to a robust hearing.”
The acting mayor plans to move forward with a hearing to remove White after a judge Tuesday rejected the commissioner’s lawsuit to block his ouster.
In a statement, Janey’s administration said the acting mayor “believes Boston residents deserve transparency and accountability from their leaders. The investigation into Dennis White’s behavior was independent, and the report speaks for itself.”
White’s rise to the command staff dates to Walsh’s transition in late 2013, after the mayor-elect had won City Hall with strong support in communities of color. In his first days in office, Walsh made Acting Commissioner William Evans permanent and announced what his administration described as the most diverse command staff in the Police Department’s history to better reflect the city. The promotions included Lieutenant Dennis White, who became a deputy superintendent.
In a lawsuit contesting his removal, White has argued that his internal affairs file was reviewed by officials in December 2013 as part of the vetting process for command staff. During Walsh’s tenure, White was then promoted higher and eventually ascended to commissioner. White’s predecessor, Commissioner William Gross, has backed his friend’s account, attesting in an sworn affidavit that Walsh was aware of White’s internal affairs record as of January 2014.
But Evans, who initially appointed White to command staff, vehemently disagreed. Evans said that while he was commissioner, the internal affairs unit briefed him on the discipline histories of all candidates up for promotion, but that White’s “troubling domestic past was never brought to my attention at any time.”
“Mayor Walsh was never briefed on Dennis White by me,” Evans said in an e-mail. “We never discussed any of Dennis White’s prior incidents at all.”
Earlier this year, in Walsh’s final weeks in office, Gross told the mayor he wanted to retire because of a health scare. Gross recommended White, his chief of staff and friend, to replace him. There would be no public process, no search for other candidates, and Walsh did not interview White for the job before appointing him the permanent commissioner, the Globe has reported.
It made Walsh the first mayor in modern Boston history who never launched a search for a police commissioner despite appointing three men to the job, according to a review of 60 years of appointments. The power to name the city’s top police commissioners shifted from the governor to the mayor in 1962, and all of Walsh’s predecessors launched some type of public search during their tenures, even if they ultimately settled on someone from inside the department.
“This whole thing is almost amateurish” because national searches for applicants are now standard for big cities, said Vincent Del Castillo, former chief of the New York City Transit Police Department and now associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “This is a major police department, it’s not some county sheriff’s office.”
In other cities, former FBI or Secret Service agents perform background investigations of candidates. The last time Boston thoroughly vetted a new police commissioner was in 2006, when then-mayor Thomas M. Menino launched a search committee that scrubbed dozens of candidates from coast to coast. The committee went so far as to request the medical record of their eventual nominee, Lowell Police Superintendent Edward F. Davis, because members wanted to assess his physical health.
The failure to search for potential candidates dismayed Dennis J. Galvin, a retired state police major and president of the Massachusetts Association for Professional Law Enforcement. Hand-picking a commissioner without a public process, he said, sent the wrong message, especially in light of the ensuing controversy.
“Those days are over, that’s old-fashioned politics,” Galvin said, because too many people today have concerns about law enforcement. “They need to be assured that the people that are coming in and doing the policing are competent.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.