In 2019, Attorney General Maura Healey achieved something that prosecutors in Western Massachusetts could not: Haul 14 current and former Springfield police officers into criminal court.
Six were charged in the brutal assault of four Black men in April 2015 after an argument at a well-known “cop bar.” Nine were accused of lying to investigators, to a grand jury, or in police reports, all allegedly as part of a coverup to protect their off-duty brethren. Prosecutors said they had eyewitnesses, video evidence, and phone records.
“The brute facts of the attack are neither highly complicated, nor particularly nuanced,” attorneys in Healey’s office wrote in one court filing arguing for some of the officers to be tried together.
Proving the officers’ guilt has been another matter altogether.
In the nearly three years since bringing the case, Healey has dropped charges against four of the officers accused of perjury, conspiracy, or assault. A judge dismissed charges against two others, and the only officer to go to trial so far was acquitted.
Seven of the other officers’ cases are still pending.
The slowly splintering Springfield case is emblematic of Healey’s wider record on pursuing criminal public corruption, a Globe review found. During her seven years as Massachusetts’ chief law enforcement officer, she has won more than 20 convictions in public malfeasance or corruption cases. Nearly just as often, cases quietly end without guilty verdicts, or are dropped or dismissed, according to court records.
The more than 60 public employees or leaders of nonprofit organizations charged with crimes by Healey include former state troopers, local police officers, and the husband of a once-powerful legislative leader. None of the cases, though, have been against an elected official.
In the same span of time, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts — long considered more aggressive and better resourced in chasing wrongdoing by politicians — have won convictions against at least three, and charged a fourth.
To some, it has fueled an image of Healey as a prosecutor who, while aggressively fighting the Trump administration, opioid manufacturers, and consumer fraud, has not similarly emphasized pursuing public corruption. After announcing charges against one state lawmaker last year, Andrew Lelling, then the US attorney for Massachusetts, suggested at the time that if his office doesn’t pursue public corruption “it might not get done.”
“It boils down to this: Does state law enforcement make public corruption a priority? I’m not sure they do. It’s clear the feds do,” said Robert Fisher, a former assistant state attorney general under Tom Reilly and former federal prosecutor. He pointed to, for example, the types of work her office emphasizes on its public website. “When you look at the AG’s office’s priorities, you don’t see public corruption.”
Healey’s office did not make her available for an interview for this story. But aides defended her record, and noted that fighting public wrongdoing is not limited to criminal cases. She and the state inspector general’s office, for example, have reached settlements with former state troopers to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime they allegedly did not work.
“My office is committed to taking on fraud and corruption by public officials,” Healey said in a statement. “People need to have faith in their government, and we work hard to uphold public integrity and bring accountability to those who violate the public’s trust.”
That has at times proved a challenge, a point embodied by perhaps her most high-profile case: the groundbreaking prosecution of two former leaders at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where at least 76 veterans died amid the early outbreak of COVID-19.
When she announced the indictments against former superintendent Bennett Walsh and ex-medical director Dr. David Clinton last fall, it was believed to be the first US prosecution of nursing home caregivers over their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But in November, a judge dismissed all charges, writing that the criminal neglect case was built on “insufficient reasonably trustworthy” evidence.
Healey has said she will appeal.
“You have to continue to be willing to do these cases to get the rogue official — because there will always be rogue officials,” said R. Michael Cassidy, who served as chief of the attorney general’s criminal bureau under Scott Harshbarger and is now a professor at Boston College Law School. “She’s done some of them, but the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home case is probably her most embarrassing loss.
“When you go after something that was that important to public confidence in the system and people who were at that level of authority,” Cassidy said, “you better have very good aim.”
Legal observers stressed that identifying public corruption is only one dimension of a state attorney general’s sprawling responsibilities, which touch everything from enforcing state public records and wage laws to representing state agencies in court.
Healey, for one, campaigned for attorney general on the promise of being the “people’s lawyer” and a seasoned civil rights prosecutor. She has used her office’s power to target corporate giants from ExxonMobil and Purdue Pharma to Facebook and Instagram.
As she weighs joining the Democratic field for governor, however, she faces a similar prospect as her predecessors who sought Massachusetts’ top job: how to explain and defend her pursuit of wrongdoing by public officials, which can prove a double-sided sword.
Martha Coakley, attorney general from 2007 to 2015, fought off accusations during her unsuccessful 2014 gubernatorial bid that she was reluctant to investigate a corrupt Massachusetts House Speaker.
Harshbarger, on the other hand, launched his own unsuccessful bid in the late 1990s touting that he brought 160 indictments for white-collar corruption as the state’s attorney general. But he riled some within his own party with prosecutions of politicians, notably that of former Attorney General Edward J. McCormack Jr., who was later acquitted.
“The people you prosecute, if you aren’t able to successfully convict them or impose penalties that aren’t severe enough, politically you bear scars,” Harshbarger said in a phone interview. He said he believes Healey has done a “commendable” job pursuing corruption, arguing she also has had to contend with challenges he or other attorneys general never did: a president who was “systematically seeking to undermine the rule of the law.”
“That becomes a major priority,” he said of Healey bringing or joining dozens of lawsuits against the Trump administration, including over its efforts to loosen environmental rules or ban international students from studying in the US. “If she doesn’t do it, who will?”
Healey’s office identified 61 criminal public integrity or corruption prosecutions it has prosecuted during her tenure, including 22 that resulted in convictions. Those cases included state troopers charged as part of the department’s overtime fraud scandal; a city of Boston employee and one-time city council candidate who swindled thousands of dollars from potential home buyers; and Bryon Hefner, who was the husband of the then-state Senate president when multiple men said Hefner sexually assaulted them.
Nearly just as many — 21 cases in all — ended without a guilty verdict. In 12 of those, charges were either dismissed or dropped, a Globe review found. In at least seven instances, a case was continued without a finding, including those of two state troopers Healey had accused of receiving free guns from a state-contracted firearms dealer.
The data come with some qualifiers. Healey dismissed charges against three defendants because they died before trial. And, three of the convictions during her tenure were of defendants first charged under her predecessor, Coakley.
Eighteen others were still pending.
“Those aren’t good” conviction rates, said Fisher, the former state and federal prosecutor.
Pursuing the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, for example, is a sign of an attorney general “not afraid to tackle profoundly difficult issues in a creative way,” said Martin G. Weinberg, a prominent Boston-based defense attorney.
“It comes with risk sometimes,” he said. “If you only prosecute the safe cases, you win most of the time.”
There are also investigations that haven’t resulted in any charges. Her office, for example, spent months reviewing allegations against top State Police officials and the Worcester County district attorney after a trooper was ordered to remove embarrassing details from the arrest report of a judge’s daughter.
Healey ultimately declined to seek criminal charges. The State Ethics Commission later found reasonable cause to believe the former State Police colonel and District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. violated state conflict of interest law. (The commission’s case remains ongoing.)
The US Attorney’s office, meanwhile, has seized a more prominent role in prosecuting public corruption. It handled the bulk of criminal cases against state troopers swept up in the department’s wide-ranging overtime fraud scandal, and alone brought charges in another alleged fraud scheme within the Boston Police Department.
Other high-profile convictions, such as that of state Representative David Nangle raiding his campaign account for personal purchases or former Fall River mayor Jasiel F. Correia II extorting marijuana companies, were also brought by federal prosecutors.
That can be typical of a federal Department of Justice that wields wider resources, more investigators, and stronger penalties than a state attorney general can bring to bear. A similar narrative followed Coakley and other state prosecutors.
“When the federal government wants to prosecute a case, the federal government gets to do it. They do it using laws that the states and the state AGs can’t,” said Thomas Kiley, a former state assistant attorney general and defense attorney who represented former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi in his federal corruption case.
“I really doubt there’s been an AG anywhere with criminal powers that hasn’t been questioned as to their commitment to dealing with corruption,” Kiley said. “I think that over-aggression is just as bad as leniency.”
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.