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OPINION

Maura Healey and the odd prosecution of Dean Tran

Her case against Tran, who is running against US Representative Lori Trahan, has some optics of overreach.

Attorney General Maura Healey has prosecuted police officers, among other public employees, but no elected officials. Why this former elected official? And, why now, when he’s running for office?Charles Krupa/Associated Press

During her seven-year tenure as attorney general, Maura Healey famously sued Donald Trump or his administration nearly 100 times. Over that same time span, Healey, a Democrat who’s now running for governor, never prosecuted a criminal public corruption case against an elected Massachusetts official, the Globe reported.

That is, not until last month, when a grand jury indicted former state senator Dean Tran — a Republican who is running against US Representative Lori Trahan — after Healy decided to prosecute him. Tran was charged with allegedly stealing a gun from an elderly constituent in 2019 and misleading investigators about what happened. He denies the charges and in response filed a lawsuit in federal court against Healey, in which he accuses the AG of a politically motivated attack. Her office has filed a motion to dismiss the suit.

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Whatever the merits of her case, Healey’s prosecution of Tran does seem odd — first, because her focus as the state’s chief law enforcement official has not been on elected Massachusetts officials, past or present. Then there’s the timeline of when it happened and the perception of who benefits. On May 26, Trahan, a two-term Democrat who represents the Third Congressional District, endorsed Healey for governor. On May 31, Trahan contributed $1,000 to Healey’s campaign, according to records filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. On July 1, Healey’s office sent out a press release about Tran’s indictment on charges of larceny of a firearm and larceny over $250 from a person over 60, among other charges.

A spokeswoman for the AG’s office said Healey has prosecuted “dozens of public officials . . . As for elected officials, yes, Dean Tran.” Francis Grubar, a spokesman for Trahan, called an inquiry about the matter “ludicrous.” Via email, Grubar said, “Dean Tran has a long history of abusing his power. That was true when he was run out of office by Beacon Hill Republicans, and it’s true today. We have no further comment on an individual so ethically corrupt that he’s facing jail time for stealing a firearm from an elderly constituent.”

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Trahan’s support for Healey is unsurprising. There’s also no reason to believe she needed political help to beat Tran, who lost his Senate seat in 2020. A refugee from Vietnam, he entered Massachusetts politics with an inspirational life story: He was the first person of color to win a seat on Fitchburg’s City Council and, in 2017, became the first Vietnamese American to win a seat in the state Senate. But during his time in the Legislature, he was stripped of his leadership position with the Senate GOP caucus after fellow lawmakers accused him of breaking Senate rules. Tran denied the charges, but according to reports at the time, the Senate’s Committee on Ethics found evidence he assigned campaign tasks to his taxpayer-funded Senate staff and pressured them to help with fundraising, a potential violation of campaign finance law.

Even so, Healey’s case against Tran has some optics of overreach. In the July 1 press release, the AG alleges that in June 2019 Tran “used his position of trust as a public official” to intimidate a constituent into parting with eight of her late husband’s firearms for $1,500. When asked to return the guns the next day, he did, but then came back again and allegedly stole another gun, which he returned at a later date. When interviewed by police about the incident, Tran gave conflicting stories and reasons for taking the guns.

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These allegations do raise questions about Tran’s fitness for office. But they also raise questions for Healey. She has prosecuted police officers, among other public employees, but no elected officials. Why this former elected official? And, why now, when he’s running for office?

After launching her campaign for governor last January, Healey defended her record on public corruption, saying, “I have never looked away or stood down in the face of corruption.” During her nearly two terms in office, she won more than 20 convictions in public malfeasance or corruption cases. Yet, “nearly just as often, cases quietly end without guilty verdicts, or are dropped or dismissed, according to court records,” the Globe’s Matt Stout reported.

With no primary challenger, and with Geoff Diehl, a Trump-loving Republican, likely to be her general election opponent, Healey’s ascension to governor looks like a done deal. This week, she released her first television ad, in which she asserts, “I’ve stood with you as the People’s Lawyer and now I’m running for Governor.”

For sure, she stood against Trump. Now she’s standing against Tran. At a minimum, it shows the highly selective power of “the people’s lawyer” — and the potential for abuse.

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Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.