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‘There may be’ federal role in Boston’s Mass. and Cass crisis, Rollins says

US Attorney Rachael Rollins.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

New US Attorney Rachael Rollins said Sunday that there may be a role for the federal government to play in addressing the ongoing humanitarian crisis at Mass. and Cass, where Boston leaders have struggled to find a long-term solution for homelessness and drug use.

Rollins, who became the first Black woman to serve as the state’s US attorney after being sworn in earlier this month, told WCVB’s “On The Record” program Sunday morning that human trafficking and drug trafficking cases will be a priority for her office — issues that have been a scourge in the Mass. and Cass area.

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“There may be [a role]. You know, we’ve seen situations where there are certainly human trafficking happening there, there is drug trafficking happening there, we know that,” Rollins said. “It’s important for us to see whether we can bring the full weight and resources of the federal government into the” situation at Mass. and Cass.

Rollins indicated she envisioned a place for the US attorney’s office in the Mass. and Cass crisis alongside law enforcement, officials in public and mental health, and housing specialists. “What can we do to assist?” she said.

Rollins, who was elected Suffolk district attorney in 2018, was nominated to serve as the state’s federal prosecutor last year by President Biden. But her path to US attorney was anything but easy — she faced weeks of delay and Republican opposition to her appointment along party lines. Ultimately, Vice President Kamala Harris had to cast tie-breaking votes to confirm Rollins to the US attorney’s job.

As US attorney, Rollins said she has yet to meet Attorney General Merrick Garland; she said she will be attending a meeting in Washington, D.C., with other new federal prosecutors and expects to meet Garland then.

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Before she took the position of Suffolk district attorney, Rollins worked as general counsel for the MBTA and Massport and served as an assistant US attorney in Boston from 2007 to 2011.

On Sunday, she repeated her priorities as the state’s new federal prosecutor — including health care fraud and white-collar crime. She’ll also continue prioritizing national security issues like domestic terrorism, espionage, and white supremacy, she said.

She will be drawing on her Suffolk County experience and will make use of the US attorney’s office civil division to go beyond criminal prosecutions, particularly on drug issues, she said.

“Because I come to this job with the background of a local prosecutor, I want us to be far more involved in human trafficking [and] drug trafficking,” Rollins said. “The opioid epidemic, we can go on the civil side and the criminal side.”

Rollins said she will also be active in rooting out cases of fraud involving pandemic relief funds from the federal government. The Justice Department has directed US attorneys to look into COVID-related fraud, she said, and the Massachusetts US attorney’s office is already working on cases in this area.

“I absolutely think there is fraud being committed,” Rollins said.

Rollins’s predecessor, Andrew Lelling, made national headlines over the prosecution of celebrity and wealthy suspects snared in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions cases. Many parents in the sweeping investigation faced allegations of plotting with college officials to place their children in elite schools.

“This is a deterrent case,” Rollins said. “This is a case where people can’t think they are better, or bigger, than a system; that the rules don’t apply to them. And I believe we would have similarly charged these cases.”

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Rollins was elected to the Suffolk County prosecutor post with a pledge to decriminalize more than a dozen nonviolent crimes like shoplifting and driving offenses and instead divert people into treatment programs. She has also overseen police misconduct cases and moved to invalidate many drug convictions that had been obtained with evidence analyzed by the state lab in Amherst and a now-shuttered facility in Jamaica Plain.

As her profile rose, Rollins has said she has faced death threats, both as Suffolk district attorney and during her nomination process for US attorney. Rollins on Sunday said she believes the death threats from other parts of the country are the result of the hearing process in Washington.

Past threats she received as Suffolk district attorney were not as constant or as violent as some of the recent ones, according to Rollins.

“It’s not even veiled — we know that they’re coming based on statements that were made, sort of trying to blame the rise of crime across the country at the feet of a local district attorney who is responsible for Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop, and Revere,” Rollins said.

The Globe previously reported the US Marshals Services declined her request for a full-time security detail despite receiving threats. On Sunday, Rollins said she has moved past the threats and praised the relationship she has with federal marshals.

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“Please just know that if I did not feel safe, I would not have taken the job,” Rollins said. “And we have a really strong working relationship with the United States Marshals Service.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.