President Biden, we have a problem. The brazen misconduct of your choice to lead the US attorney’s office in Boston, Rachael Rollins, as documented in two explosive new reports, has rocked public confidence in federal law enforcement in Massachusetts. To restore that faith, you should appoint a successor to Rollins who is above ethical reproach, has no ideological leanings, and does not owe his or her selection to any local political figures.
Or, in plain English: don’t just follow the customary practice of letting Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey recommend the new US attorney. They’re the ones who suggested Rollins in the first place. You and Attorney General Merrick Garland should take control of the decision for a replacement, and there should be plenty of nonpolitical career prosecutors for you to choose from.
Rollins announced on Tuesday that she would resign after only 16 months in office, just ahead of the public release of a pair of Justice Department reports that show she used her power as the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts to help her preferred political candidate in last year’s election for Suffolk County district attorney. Among other misconduct, she was found to have violated the Hatch Act, which limits political activities by federal employees; one of the reports said that Rollins’s actions “rank among the most flagrant violations of the Hatch Act that [the Office of Special Counsel] has ever investigated.”
It was bad enough that she helped that candidate, Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, informally behind the scenes. Far worse are the indications in the report that Rollins wielded her official powers to harm his opponent, Kevin R. Hayden — or, in the words of the report “used non-public DOJ information available to her by virtue of her position as US Attorney, in an effort to influence the outcome of an election.”
The reports strike a nerve, for an obvious reason: A politicized justice system, in which prosecutors make investigatory or charging decisions based on politics, is no justice system at all. Even the appearance of favoring candidates has to be avoided — much less a US attorney acting as a “de facto campaign advisor,” as one of the reports says Rollins was for Arroyo.
It’s not lost on anyone in Boston that Arroyo was also the endorsed favorite of Markey and Warren until they withdrew their endorsements late in the election. While there is no reason to believe the two senators who recommended Rollins knew or approved of her subsequent efforts to elect their ally, the political links are all far too close for comfort, and underscore the problem with the traditional role of senators in recommending US attorneys. Whatever the reason for that tradition’s existence, the imperative now for Biden and Garland must be to reestablish the Massachusetts US attorney’s political independence, not to observe senatorial privileges.
Predictably, Senate Republicans, who had opposed Rollins’s nomination all along, claimed vindication Wednesday after her resignation. But their beef with Rollins — that her reformist approach to prosecution was too soft on crime — has nothing to do with ethical lapses documented in the reports.
As for those lapses, the conduct outlined in the reports was so outrageous that it’s not clear the repercussions for her will end with her resignation. Among other things, one of the reports found she “knowingly and willfully made a false statement of material fact” during an interview with investigators. Although lying under oath is a crime, a footnote in one of the reports indicates the department declined to prosecute that false statement criminally. But lawyers have been disbarred for perjury.
What’s most important, though, is that Biden and Garland take seriously the scandal that erupted on their watch. Unfortunately, Rollins’s conduct will fuel every cynic of the justice system. It will play into the hands of those, like former and potentially future president Donald Trump, who’ve tried to portray politically motivated prosecutions as somehow the norm.
They’re not the norm. And the best way to keep it that way — to make sure that what Rollins did remains an aberration and not the model for prosecutors of both parties — is to appoint a new US attorney in Massachusetts who will embody the political independence that Rollins so egregiously violated.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.