Soon-to-be-former US attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins was never going to muster the restraint required to be a federal prosecutor.
As her tenure as Suffolk DA showed, Rollins is intensely political, and combative. She bristles at being told what to do. And she won’t hold her tongue just because decorum – or somebody else’s idea of ethics – requires it.
For example, in 2019, shortly after she took office as DA, she set about fulfilling a campaign promise to overhaul the way crimes are prosecuted, including declining to prosecute certain drug offenses and relatively minor crimes. Governor Charlie Baker’s public safety chief criticized her proposals, and Rollins forcefully pushed back, bringing up the way sexual assault allegations against Baker’s son had been handled. After that very public conflict, she and the governor appeared to smooth things over in a phone call. But at a Dorchester rally the next day, it was as if that call had never happened, and the new DA – with security provided by members of the antisemitic, homophobic Nation of Islam – let it rip.
“This is an example of when someone slaps you in the face and thinks you’re gonna turn away and cry, and you take your earrings off, roundhouse kick them dead in the face, and then punch them to the ground,” she told the delighted crowd.
All of this was plain long before she was even considered for the federal job.
When she was nominated as US attorney by the Biden administration, it was clear that the reformist and sensible approach to prosecuting crime that had made Rollins popular with voters in these parts would make her enemies among grandstanding Republicans like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.
But once she was confirmed, by the narrowest possible margin, Rollins’s worst enemy was herself.
The scathing reports released Wednesday lay it all out. The US Department of Justice inspector general, and the US Office of Special Counsel, found Rollins had committed multiple and egregious ethics violations in her 16 months in federal office.
Among them, investigators found, Rollins violated the Hatch Act – which prohibits federal office holders from engaging in partisan political activity – by attending a fund-raiser with first lady Jill Biden and exercised poor judgment by attending a rally after the leak of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, after being urged not to do so. Investigators also found that Rollins had improperly solicited Celtics tickets for a youth basketball program, and accepted tickets for herself, that she improperly spoke publicly on a criminal case, and that she shared details of investigations that should have been kept confidential, including with the Globe.
The reports say Rollins also deeply involved herself in the race to succeed her as Suffolk DA, advising and coordinating with City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who had pledged to continue her policies, and attempting to disseminate information that would have damaged Arroyo’s opponent, Kevin Hayden, who won the election. That included using her position as US attorney to provide a nonpublic DOJ document to the Boston Herald. Further, the IG found, Rollins lied about this under oath before being confronted with her text messages and eventually admitting what she had done.
“He will regret the day he did this to you. Watch,” Rollins texted Arroyo after Hayden bested him in the Democratic primary.
All of this is very, very bad.
“Ms. Rollins’s unabashed willingness to use DOJ resources, information, and her official authority as a U.S. Attorney in furtherance of partisan political goals is directly contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Hatch Act,” the Special Counsel wrote.
There are good reasons why US attorneys must stay out of politics and maintain high ethical standards: trucking in partisanship leaves the Justice Department open to allegations that its prosecutions are politically motivated and damages its credibility. When a government official uses their position to settle scores and promote their own causes, it undermines everyone’s faith in government. It’s damaging no matter the party affiliation of the person doing it.
But of course, party affiliation does matter here in one crucial way. Rollins is a Democrat, and Democrats are held – and, more importantly, generally hold themselves – to a higher standard than Republicans who commit similar violations.
The Trump administration was a rolling carnival of Hatch Act and other ethical violations, all of them waved away by most GOP officials and millions of voters. And the Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr was supremely political, intervening in cases to the benefit of President Trump and his allies, mischaracterizing the findings of the Mueller report to skew the narrative in Trump’s favor, and pressing Special Counsel John Durham to find evidence that the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was politically motivated (Durham failed).
Rollins, who will resign officially on Friday, might have survived if she was a Republican, particularly if she occupied a different office: Fraudster George Santos has simply refused to resign from his New York congressional seat, and the GOP leaders who need his vote won’t make him; and the US Supreme Court appears utterly unmoved by the fact that Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in undisclosed gifts and other support from conservative activist Harlan Crow over the years.
But Republicans like Senator Cotton – crowing today over Rollins’s fall – suddenly care deeply about the rules when a reformist Democrat breaks them.
Add his smug self-righteousness to the damage Rollins has done.