Criminal justice reform is a fierce issue in American politics — so fierce it brought down Rachael Rollins as US attorney. She waged that battle against herself.
As Suffolk district attorney, Rollins was a champion of the progressive prosecutor movement in Massachusetts, which made her a target of Republicans and others who oppose it as a soft-on-crime approach that undercuts law and order. With strong backing from the Massachusetts political establishment and the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate, she became US attorney in 2022 — the first Black woman to be confirmed to that post for Massachusetts. It was a great triumph. But a few months later, Rollins handed enemies inside her office and beyond a lethal weapon to wield against her: She wrongly used the power of that office to promote the candidacy of someone she believed would take up her progressive agenda as DA — and to hurt his rival.
Of course Rollins must resign. Two reports released Wednesday — one by the Justice Department inspector general and another by the US Office of Special Counsel — make that clear. But it’s sad, for the missed opportunity it represents for Rollins and the reform she stood for, and also for what it says about political campaigns and how, with an assist from the media, they aim to smear.
According to the IG report, Rollins was working behind the scenes to leak information to The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald on multiple occasions to help Ricardo Arroyo in his losing campaign to become Suffolk district attorney. She advised Arroyo and coordinated with him on activities to help his campaign, the report said. She also leaked non-public information about Kevin R. Hayden, the interim district attorney who ultimately won election to the job, to create the impression that the Justice Department was or would be investigating him for evidence of public corruption. She also lied under oath during the IG interview, the report said.
Additionally, Rollins was cited for attending a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser with Jill Biden in violation of the Hatch Act, which limits certain political activities of federal employees. But that was really the least of her ethical problems. As the special counsel’s report put it, Rollins’s effort “to sabotage the campaign of a political candidate” by leaking information to plant a story that he was facing a DOJ investigation “is one of the most egregious Hatch Act violations” that the office has ever investigated.
What those reports also make clear is the 2022 fight to become Suffolk district attorney has to go down as one of the ugliest in recent Boston political memory. Both Democrats faced brutal attacks in the Globe concerning their personal integrity. Arroyo faced allegations about sexual assaults dating back to his high school years. Hayden was accused of dropping a case against Transit Police and for other mismanagement and alleged improprieties. The two government ethics reports make clear that Rollins was advising Arroyo and acting as a source for news stories that would harm Hayden.
These two reports raise many questions, including serious ones for the media that will take some time and reflection to sort out. My own commentary during the 2022 DA’s race was tough on Arroyo, on the basis of the allegations of sexual assault that he denied and in fact said he did not know about before the Globe report.
It was an ugly race because the stakes were so high. The underlying fight was over which candidate was more progressive. Rollins backed Arroyo primarily because she believed he would continue the progressive agenda she undertook during her tenure in that office. Unfortunately, to advance that agenda, she abused the power of the office she had just won. In doing so, she made it easy for enemies like Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas to go after her. Cotton kicked off the investigation into Rollins with a letter about her attendance at the fundraiser with Jill Biden. More deadly ammunition, helpfully provided by Rollins, followed.
To get the US attorney’s job, Rollins had bipartisan support from a blockbuster list of backers. As reported at the time by Politico, they included Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey; then-attorney general and now Governor Maura Healey; former governors Deval Patrick and Bill Weld, who is also a former US attorney; former US attorneys Carmen Ortiz, Donald Stern, Michael Sullivan, and Wayne Budd; and former Suffolk DA Ralph Martin and current Middlesex DA Marian Ryan.
Reflecting on the news of her resignation, one of those supporters told me before the reports came out, “You can be charismatic, even visionary, but undisciplined, sloppy, and not take advice from people — all at the same time.” Afterward, that same person called Rollins’s actions “dumb and scandalous.”
Rollins was definitely wading into new prosecutorial turf. For example, last May, the Boston Herald reported that she planned to investigate whether Quincy’s opposition to a plan to rebuild the Long Island bridge constitutes a civil rights violation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And last June, she notified Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria that she had launched an investigation of possible civil rights violations in Everett city government. In a letter to DeMaria, she suggested that the resignations of two Everett officials who had come under fire for racist comments could indicate a broader pattern of “unacceptable, offensive and possibly discriminatory behavior.”
The IG’s report cited documents released by Rollins that were used to report both stories as examples of improperly shared information. Yet those investigations also illustrate the kinds of reforms for which she fiercely fought, and which so fiercely divide her office and the country.