Among the many different types of crimes the Massachusetts attorney general’s office investigates, none present quite the political minefield as the prosecution of another politician.
Some previous state prosecutors pursued such cases with vigor. Others, less so. And either way, they usually got criticized, for being too zealous, on the one hand, or too timid on the other.
The newly elected attorney general, Andrea Campbell, inherited several high-profile political cases, including allegations of illegal campaign finance activity by a sitting Republican state senator and the former head of the Mass GOP and pending criminal charges against a former Republican state senator and congressional candidate.
Campbell’s predecessor, now-Governor Maura Healey, took on several high-profile public corruption cases when she was attorney general, such as those involving police officers and city employees, but wasn’t known for pursuing those involving elected officials.
Campbell, facing the same dynamic as Healey and every other attorney general before her, vows to not blink at the politics of a public corruption case.
“As I have said time and time again, no one is above the law, not private industries or public officials,” she told the Globe in a statement. “And under my leadership, this office will always pursue violations of power, trust and the law no matter who commits them — without fear or favor.”
Campbell’s new office serves a unique role in prosecuting public corruption throughout Massachusetts, as it often has the capacity to take on cases that fall somewhere between smaller-scale offenses and the most high-profile crimes, legal observers say. The attorney general’s criminal bureau has a specific division focused on white-collar crimes and public integrity, a team Campbell’s office said she will empower.
District attorneys are often overburdened with day-to-day crime, while US attorneys pursue cases that may have national or international implications. Those that fall in the middle still require the state’s interference to uphold residents’ trust in their government.
The attorney general can also serve as a legal counsel to offices such as the state inspector general, auditor, and campaign finance regulators, who can conduct their own investigations of wrongdoing. Those offices can levy fines for proven misconduct, but they can’t charge someone with a crime.
“Having worked at all three levels, the AG is at kind of a sweet spot,” said Robert Fisher, a former assistant state attorney general under Tom Reilly and a former federal prosecutor.
Campbell said in a recent interview that during her campaign, voters brought up concerns about corruption in their local police forces and misappropriation of funds by public employees.
She also mentioned cases that were already prosecuted by the attorney general’s office, such as the coverup of a police assault in Springfield that ended in more than a dozen indictments of police officers. The results of those indictments are mixed; some cases have been dropped, some officers were acquitted and others are pending.
“Being the chief law enforcement officer of Massachusetts, there is an obligation for this office to take on issues that our residents want us to address,” she said.
Campbell already had a few cases in her queue when she took office.
Last summer, a grand jury indicted former state senator Dean A. Tran as a result of an investigation during Healey’s term. He was charged with stealing a gun from an elderly constituent in 2019 and misleading investigators about what happened. Tran, a Republican from Fitchburg who was running for Congress when Healey brought the charges, filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against her, accusing her of pursuing the case for political reasons. She filed a motion to dismiss, which was allowed, but Tran appealed. He has not yet filed a brief in that appeal, according to court records.
The criminal case against Tran is still pending in Worcester Superior Court, with a court date scheduled for early March.
Campbell will also have to decide on a referral from campaign finance regulators to investigate possible violations by Republican state Senator Ryan Fattman and Jim Lyons, the recently ousted head of the Massachusetts Republican Party.
Her office said she hasn’t made a decision yet.
“I am actively reviewing [referrals] and getting up to speed,” she told the Globe earlier this month. “When we make a decision, I want to be thoughtful, but we of course want the public to know.”
Despite the singular role the state can play in these types of corruption cases, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts have long been seen as more aggressive in pursuing wrongdoing among politicians and better armed with the tools needed to chase down political crimes.
For example, while more than 60 public employees or leaders of nonprofit organizations were charged with crimes by Healey, Tran was the only current or former elected official charged by her office.
In the past few years, federal prosecutors won the high-profile convictions of elected officials, including former Fall River mayor Jasiel F. Correia II for extorting bribes from marijuana companies, and former Democratic state representative David Nangle for embezzling money from his campaign account. Federal prosecutors also brought charges against Boston police officers involved in a fraud scheme and handled the bulk of criminal cases against state troopers who participated in the department’s overtime fraud scandal.
While federal investigators may have more tools — including a broader authority to use wiretaps — that doesn’t fully explain why so few public corruption cases were pursued by the state, experts say.
State prosecutors may be less eager to get involved in them because of the inherent political risk, especially in a largely one-party state such as Massachusetts, said R. Michael Cassidy, a Boston College law professor who served as chief of the criminal bureau under Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.
Attorneys general might rely on the same legislators they are investigating to approve their budgets or consider their political agendas, Cassidy said, which can pose awkward scenarios, if not more problematic situations.
Take Martha Coakley, who served as attorney general from 2007 to 2015. During her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2014, she faced criticism that she was reluctant to pursue an investigation into former Massachusetts House speaker Salvatore DiMasi over allegations he helped steer a state contract to a company in exchange for kickbacks. She ceded the prosecution to the US attorney’s office, which eventually convicted DiMasi on federal corruption charges.
“You’ll make enemies and if you lose the case, there is mud on your face,” Cassidy said. “But institutional interest should outweigh the pragmatic risk in cases where there is good, solid evidence . . . and there is certainly more than one case every four years that needs to be prosecuted.”
Harshbarger is a prime example. He caught flak from his own party with prosecutions of politicians, notably that of former attorney general Edward J. McCormack Jr. on conflict-of-interest charges. McCormack was acquitted.
He commended Campbell’s early campaign promises to take on corruption and said he has faith that she will pursue it as part of her broader agenda. And it won’t be easy, said the former attorney general, who served from 1991 to 1999.
The job can be politically fraught, he said, but “the law has to apply to everyone.”
“To some extent, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he said. “You notice that I didn’t get elected governor.”
Matt Stout and Ivy Scott of the Globe staff contributed to this report.