US Attorney Rachael Rollins, the trailblazing reform prosecutor who made history as the first Black woman to serve as the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, announced Tuesday afternoon that she is stepping down amid two federal government ethics probes, capping a tenure that had been marked by both turmoil and praise.
Rollins announced her planned resignation in an e-mail to staff just after 3 p.m. Tuesday, with the subject line, “Profoundly Grateful,” according to a copy obtained by the Globe.
“My presence has become a distraction and the work you do is far too important to be overshadowed,” she told staff, restating her platform to represent a community that “does not see themselves reflected in our office or in much of the affirmative work we do.”
“In the coming days, please know that everything I did was to show those communities that our office’s silence in the wake of scandal or egregious discriminatory conduct does not always mean inaction,” she added. “We are working hard, even when they don’t hear from us.”
Her lawyer said that she will be submitting her letter of resignation to President Biden by end of business Friday. Her first assistant, US Attorney Joshua Levy, is expected to lead the office until someone new is appointed.
The announcement comes as two separate government watchdog agencies have been conducting sweeping ethics investigations into Rollins’s 16 months in office, including alleged violations of the Hatch Act — the federal law that bars federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity “while on duty, in a federal facility, or using federal property” and sets limits on fund-raising and other activities.
The Justice Department Inspector General presented a draft of its investigative report to Rollins in April for her review and her response, though the findings have not been made public. The Department of Justice would not comment Tuesday. The US Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog agency that, among other things, enforces the Hatch Act, is expected to release its findings on Wednesday.
Her attorney, Michael Bromwich, said Rollins is “optimistic that the important work she started will continue but understands that her presence has become a distraction.”
Rollins, 52, emerged as the flag-bearer of a progressive prosecutor movement in Massachusetts five years ago when she was elected Suffolk district attorney, beating out other more established candidates. She became the first woman of color elected as a top state or county prosecutor in Massachusetts.
But her nomination to serve as US attorney quickly drew opposition from conservative members of Congress who opposed her progressive stance, leading to a contentious confirmation process that was divided along partisan lines.
Vice President Kamala Harris had to twice vote to break 50-50 ties — on a procedural motion and then on confirmation. Rollins took office in January 2022.
Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, who both lobbied aggressively for Rollins, hailed her at the time as “a national leader on transforming the criminal justice system and shifting away from an approach based on punishment and penalization to one that combats the root causes of injustice, whether it be poverty, substance use, or racial disparity.”
The senators released a brief statement Tuesday saying, “Rachael Rollins has for years dedicated herself to the people of Massachusetts and equal justice under the law. We will respect her decision.”
Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who had opposed Rollins’s confirmation, said in a statement Tuesday that, “I warned Democratic senators that Rachael Rollins wasn’t only a pro-criminal ideologue, but also has a history of poor judgement and ethical lapses. Now that she has resigned in disgrace, the Senate should turn its attention to the corrupt, pro-criminal ideologues at the highest ranks of the Department of Justice.”
Cotton had pushed for the federal investigations into Rollins’s activities, which included her attendance at a July 2022 Democratic fund-raiser to greet Jill Biden at an Andover home.
Rollins arrived in a government-issued car, driven by a government employee, according to prior media reports confirmed by the Globe. Cotton suggested to federal watchdog investigators that Rollins attended the event “in her official capacity,” accusing her of violating the Hatch Act.
Soon after, in August 2022, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a new policy barring political appointees from attending fund-raisers and other political events in any capacity and set new restrictions beyond the Hatch Act. The memo did not address the allegations against Rollins or name her directly.
“As Department employees, we have been entrusted with the authority and responsibility to enforce the laws of the United States in a neutral and impartial manner,” Garland wrote. “In fulfilling this responsibility, we must do all we can to maintain public trust and ensure that politics — both in fact and appearance — does not compromise or affect the integrity of our work.”
The Associated Press has reported that the Justice Department’s Inspector General is also looking into Rollins’s use of her personal cellphone to conduct official business and a trip that she took to California that was paid for by an outside group.
Earlier this month, Cotton also sent a letter to Inspector General Michael Horowitz claiming whistle-blowers accused Rollins of removing documents from her office despite orders from the Justice Department not to do so. The letter, which was first reported by Politico and obtained by the Globe, urged Horowitz to investigate those claims in addition to the Hatch Act allegations.
George Vien, a Boston-based lawyer who worked with Rollins when she was a prosecutor and who wrote a letter supporting her nomination, told the Globe Tuesday, “She’s a good person. If she thought she had become a distraction for the office, she did the right thing.”
In her 16 months in office, Rollins oversaw several high-profile cases, including the indictment last month of Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard accused of leaking hundreds of classified documents on a gaming chat server. She also launched a civil rights investigation into the Worcester police, reached a consent decree with Springfield police over an excessive force investigation, and created a civil rights human trafficking unit focusing on sex and human trafficking and human smuggling cases.
But her tenure, scarred early by the tumultuous confirmation process, never gained the level of traction she saw when she swept into the Suffolk district attorney’s office in 2018 with a mandate of change demanded by voters, after winning 39 percent of the vote against four other candidates in the Democratic primary. She dominated the final election against one Independent Reformer Party candidate.
She had previously worked as general counsel for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Massachusetts Port Authority. She was an assistant US attorney in Boston from 2007 to 2011, working in both the civil and criminal divisions.
As Suffolk district attorney, she implemented a number of progressive criminal justice reforms that she campaigned on in 2018, including not prosecuting some categories of low-level crimes.
Over the objections of some judges, police officials, and prosecutors, she called for rehabilitation over incarceration and for accountability in policing. And in the years after she was elected, her message began to resonate. An independent review published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the practice of not prosecuting low-level crimes in Suffolk County successfully directed nonviolent offenders away from the criminal justice system.
In her e-mail to staff Tuesday, Rollins noted that she represented a community that is not always represented within the halls of power but “are over-represented in many of our criminal prosecutions. I grapple with that tension constantly.”
“I told them that we were working. They have now begun to believe it,” she said. “As I have previously stated, my biggest regret is distracting from the vitally important work each of you do for our Commonwealth. Stay the course. Keeping doing the work. And always be proud of who you see in the mirror.”
Sean Cotter of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Kris Hooks can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Captain_Hooks. Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.