A black bat emblazoned with the Justice Department seal and the words, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” rests on a windowsill in Andrew Lelling’s office — a gift from a childhood friend when he was sworn in as US attorney for Massachusetts two years ago.
Lelling said he loves the bat because the phrase, made famous by President Theodore Roosevelt, epitomizes his role as the state’s top federal prosecutor, making it worthy of display even though the engraver misspelled Massachusetts (adding an extra e).
“I should not be out there engaging in political disputes and I try to avoid that,” Lelling said during a recent interview. “But if a federal crime happens then suddenly we’re there and that’s the stick. That’s how we express ourselves.”
Since his appointment in December 2017, Lelling has captured national attention with a succession of high-profile cases, from the college admissions bribery scandal to the indictment of a state judge accused of helping an undocumented immigrant skip out the back door of a courthouse to elude Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
He oversees a staff of about 300, including some 125 prosecutors, and works out of a soundproof office on the ninth floor at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in the Seaport District, which offers panoramic views of Boston Harbor.
The “coolest thing” about the view, Lelling said, is an occasional glimpse of the USS Constitution turning around in the harbor. He’s a history buff, who earned his bachelor’s in history and literature at Binghamton University in New York and his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Lelling amiably agreed to talk about his office, explaining that he put a lot of thought into how to furnish it — he was given a $5,000 budget by the government — choosing items that have a special meaning or reflect his philosophy on work and life.
“The things in here need to be things I care about,” Lelling said. He spent 12 years as a prosecutor at the US attorney’s office in Boston, in the economic crimes unit and as senior litigation counsel, before his appointment to the top job.
One of the first things to go was the floral print furniture purchased by his predecessor, former US attorney Carmen Ortiz. It was “quite nice,” Lelling said, but he wanted something more masculine and settled on brown leather furniture. The floral pieces were relocated to a sitting area outside the civil division.
“Join, or Die,” a political cartoon attributed to Benjamin Franklin, hangs on the wall. It’s a snake, severed into 13 pieces, symbolizing the need for the American colonies to unite during the Revolutionary War.
“I figure if I’m going to spend the government’s money to put something up on the walls it should be somehow related to US history or what we do here,” he said.
But Lelling also has decorated the space with personal mementos, gifts, and items he paid for out of pocket.
His late father, Irwin, was a dentist in the Bronx for nearly 50 years and two items that hung in his office for decades have found a new home in Lelling’s office.
One is a Walt Kelly “Pogo” comic strip, showing Pogo staring in a mirror, with the words, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The other is a plaque that says “Illegitimi non Carborundum” — a mock Latin phrase that originated during World War II and means, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Lelling said he embraces both sentiments.
“We are our own worst enemies,” Lelling said. “How many times do you do something and afterward you are like, ‘Jesus Christ I just did this to myself.’ ”
A large print of Norman Rockwell’s well-known painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” is prominently displayed on a wall.
Six-year-old Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 became the first African-American child to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, clutches a book and ruler as four deputy US marshals escort her by a building spray-painted with a racial epithet and “KKK.”
“To me, what the painting is about is the rule of law,” said Lelling, impressed by the deputies walking in lock step as they shield the little girl from angry protesters. “That painting is about imposing fairness and equality on a population that did not, at least initially, want it.”
He worked in the Justice Department’s civil rights division in Washington, D.C., during President George W. Bush’s administration and investigated hate crimes against Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
It was a transformative experience for Lelling, who was working as a business litigator at the Boston law firm Goodwin Procter in 2001 when a colleague, Ralph Boyd, was tapped to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division. He convinced Lelling to become his deputy.
Lelling said he dealt with issues that people feel strongly about, like affirmative action, voting rights, abortion rights, and hate crimes.
“No matter what you do, someone will totally hate you,” he said, adding it was good training for his current job.
A framed photograph of Boyd and Lelling sits on a table in the office.
“I talk to Ralph for a reality check on things all the time,” he said.
There are also photographs of Lelling’s wife, Dana Gershengorn, a state juvenile court judge; and their two children, one in college and the other in high school. They’re displayed in a book case.
The most intriguing item is a fixture that was there when he moved in: an encrypted telephone reserved for classified calls, such as conversations about national security matters. It’s shaped like a box, and can only be accessed with a special card. The phone is at the disposal of visiting attorney generals.
“I think I’ve used it once,” Lelling said. One time, he recalled, it started ringing, but stopped before he could answer it. He said he never found out who was calling.
An avid reader, he has a variety of books scattered around his office. A worn copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” is a favorite. He admits that it belongs to the Justice Department library.
He used to spend hours at the majestic building while working in Washington and would leaf through Bartlett’s when he was bored.
“It’s on permanent loan to me,” said Lelling, who checked the book out in 2003. “I’ll bring it back at some point.”