In her 16-month tenure as US attorney for Massachusetts, Rachael Rollins repeatedly committed ethical breaches and misused the power of her office, in particular attempting to influence the 2022 election for her successor as Suffolk district attorney, according to two federal investigations that led her to abruptly announce her resignation this week.
The two government watchdog investigations began in July 2022, after Rollins mingled with Democratic insiders at a fund-raiser and photo-op with Jill Biden in Andover, violating guidelines her own general counsel had established to avoid violating the Hatch Act. The federal law bars government 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.
But the investigations quickly grew into a broader, more damning impeachment of her behind-the-scenes political activity while serving as the most powerful prosecutor in Massachusetts, despite being required to remain strictly neutral on political matters.
Investigators found a series of “flagrant, willful” ethics violations, including leaking information to the news media and attempting to stir up negative stories about Suffolk prosecutor Kevin Hayden, who was running against Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo for the post she once held. Perhaps most damning was her leak of a Justice Department document that implied Hayden was under investigation for his handling of a case involving an MBTA police officer, and then lying about her involvement to investigators while under oath.
“Ms. Rollins’s abuse of her power within the federal justice system to achieve a political goal epitomizes the type of ‘political justice’ that Congress intended to prohibit,” said the US Office of Special Council, which found that Rollins violated the federal Hatch Act numerous times.
The Office of Special Counsel said it submitted its findings on Hatch Act violations to President Biden. The White House would not comment Wednesday. The Department of Justice Inspector General separately found that Rollins violated department policies and ethics agreements and applicable law.
“We believe that Rollins’s actions fell short of the standards of professionalism, judgment, and impartiality that the department should expect of a US attorney,” the Inspector General report said, adding the findings were referred to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General “for any action they deem appropriate.”
The Department of Justice did not comment on whether it would take any action against Rollins.
Rollins’s lawyer, Michael Bromwich, said the reports “need to be put in context,” noting she quickly transitioned from being a county prosecutor “to the highly-regulated environment of the US attorney’s office.”
“Most of the allegations amount to minor process fouls,” he said, adding that “though Ms. Rollins could have raised many facts and arguments in connection with these issues, she had no interest in litigating them any further. She believed the better course was to step down and end the matter before it overwhelmed her office and DOJ.”
Rollins herself has not commented publicly. But on Tuesday she said through her attorney she will resign before the end of business Friday. She also wrote to the staff of the US attorney’s office that “my presence has become a distraction and the work you do is far too important to be overshadowed.”
The two reports are likely to have continuous ripple effects on the office. Joshua Levy, the first assistant US attorney, is expected to lead the office until a successor is appointed. The office is currently prosecuting such high-profile cases as the alleged leak of classified documents by a Massachusetts National Air Guardsman.
The findings drew widespread condemnation locally and nationally, from conservative critics of Rollins’s progressive reforms as well as from supporters who had watched her rise in Massachusetts political circles.
“I’m grateful for Rachael Rollins’ impactful work to address the hurt and harm inflicted by the legal system on Black and brown communities,” US Representative Ayana Pressley of Boston, who is also a personal friend of Rollins, said in a statement. “I respect the ethics process and her decision to resign.”
Rollins first emerged as the flag-bearer of the progressive prosecutor movement in Massachusetts when she was elected Suffolk district attorney in 2018. She was the first Black woman to be elected a prosecutor in Massachusetts, and the first to hold the federal post in Massachusetts.
“She needs to be held to the same standards of professional conduct as any other US attorney,” said Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and who supported Rollins’s controversial nomination two years ago. “The president trusted her, the Senate trusted her, and if these charges turn out to be valid, she really disappointed all of us.”
The ethics probes were launched after several Rollins critics, including Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, raised questions about her trip to Andover, which was first reported by the Boston Herald.
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.
But the Inspector General said investigators subsequently received “multiple additional allegations concerning Rollins,” related to political activities, the federal gift rules, travel regulations, and misuse of position.
In one instance, she had an employee solicit 30 Boston Celtics tickets for youth basketball players — as well as two for herself. She also took at least two business trips paid for by outside parties without seeking prior approval, according to the reports’ findings.
But the “most concerning” incident, the Inspector General said, was that Rollins secretly disclosed sensitive, confidential Department of Justice information to the Boston Herald in an attempt to influence the election between Hayden, who had been serving as her interim successor, and Arroyo, her friend and favored candidate.
The report found that Rollins presented both the Herald and the Globe with several accusations about Hayden before the Sept. 6 primary, much of which the newspapers did not publish.
But several days after Hayden prevailed over Arroyo, the Herald ran a story saying the US attorney’s office had been considering investigating whether Hayden had improperly influenced a case involving alleged wrongdoing by a T police officer.
The story was based on an interoffice memo disclosing that Rollins had recused herself from a potential criminal investigation because she had been involved in the T police investigation when she was the Suffolk prosecutor. Investigators said Rollins lied under oath when questioned about the matter, denying that she leaked the information until she was presented text messages confirming her involvement.
Rollins, who suspected Hayden provided politically damaging information about Arroyo to the Globe, had texted Arroyo that Hayden would “regret the day he did this to you. Watch.” Days later, she leaked pictures of her recusal memo to a Herald reporter.
The report also alleges she provided Arroyo with campaign advice, coordinated with him on political activities, and provided news outlets — including the Globe — with negative information on Hayden, including information about the investigation into T police.
“Ms. Rollins actively supported and was a de facto campaign advisor to Mr. Hayden’s opponent in the Democratic primary,” the Office of Special Counsel said, adding that Rollins confirmed she “agreed to speak to reporters at Mr. Arroyo’s request.”
James Borghesani, a spokesperson for Hayden, said in a statement that the OIG report “presents a comprehensive review of the conduct of one individual and requires no additional comment from us.”
Arroyo told reporters at City Hall on Wednesday that he has not read either report and cannot respond to specific detail.
“I find all of this incredibly sad,” Arroyo said before rushing off to a City Council meeting. “Rachael is someone who was a friend of mine prior to even being in elected office as somebody that I’ve gone to to seek counsel.”
He added that his race against Hayden “suffered from a number of illegal leaks from different directions.”
A spokesperson for the Globe, which had published several stories that were discussed in the report, said in a statement that, “In the scope of our reporting, we regularly talk to officials at all levels of government. We stand by our reporting.”
Joe Dwinell, executive editor of the Boston Herald, said in a statement: “We stand by our journalism and anything more we have to say will be in the Herald.”
Legal analysts say that the investigations made clear Rollins violated ethics rules and misused her position.
Rebecca Roiphe, a former prosecutor and professor of law and ethics at New York Law School, called the conduct “egregious” and “shocking.”
The most consequential parts of the report, Roiphe said, dealt with Rollins’s attempted intervention in the district attorney’s race. The other alleged misconduct, including accepting Celtics tickets and travel reimbursements, are less serious, she said, when considered in isolation.
“But when you add all of those things together, it shows a pattern of disregard for her ethical obligations,” Roiphe said.
“There are corners that people cut and people step over the line,” she said. “But this isn’t just stepping over the line. This is leaping to the other side. She’s not just engaging in a political campaign or throwing her weight behind a candidate but actually abusing her position of power to advantage that candidate.”
Mike Damiano, Shelley Murphy, Danny McDonald, and Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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