Prosecutorial code propels GOP’s Michael Sullivan far

Michael J. Sullivan spoke about a stabbing as Plymouth district attorney in 1999.
Michael J. Sullivan spoke about a stabbing as Plymouth district attorney in 1999.

There was no question that the 29-year-old Guatemalan woman who arrived at Logan Airport in 2003 with three pounds of heroin sewn into her purse and another half-pound hidden inside her body had broken the law. The question was what to do about it.

To her court-appointed lawyer, Flor Jurado-Lopez was a victim who should be sent home, not a criminal to be locked away. She was forced to borrow money from a gang to pay hospital bills for her husband — a shooting victim of the violence roiling Guatemala — and coerced into becoming a drug mule, ordered to stuff 23 balloons of heroin into her body. Pregnant with her first child, she gave birth in handcuffs while awaiting sentencing.

To the office of US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, now running for US Senate, Jurado-Lopez was a law-breaker who should be dealt with one way, the automatic federal sentencing formula that chiefly considered the weight of the drugs and called for six years in prison.


That was Sullivan’s style: by the book, hard on crime, no negotiations. The approach made him a favorite with the Bush White House, which elevated Sullivan in 2006 to serve two high-profile jobs at once — acting director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives in Washington while still managing the federal prosecutor’s office in Massachusetts, mostly from afar.

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His prominent double duty, coupled with an understated, regular-guy demeanor, prompted some Republican activists to dream for years about a Sullivan campaign for statewide office, and to draft him for the Senate special election. That experience has given him a name-recognition advantage in the three-way GOP primary. Following last week’s Marathon bombings, he was a fixture on cable news speaking as a former ATF director.

Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP/file
US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan spoke in 2008 at a news conference with Attorney General Martha Coakley about a settlement over a fatal tunnel ceiling collapse.

But his Senate candidacy has also directed more attention to his years as US attorney, a time defined in public view by headline-grabbing prosecutions of criminals such as the attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid and the carjacker-killer Gary Lee Sampson.

If those were seen as unanimous successes, it was the scores of smaller cases such as that of the Guatemalan drug mule that made Sullivan a polarizing figure to federal judges, defense lawyers, and even his own prosecutors.

Liberal and libertarian jurists blanched at what they saw as indiscriminate use of the office’s powers to seek thousands of years of collective sentences — at a cost far into the millions of dollars — to lock up a slew of addicts and lower-level drug dealers instead of using federal powers to pursue more sophisticated probes. Defense lawyers branded him “Maximum Mike.”


Sullivan winces at that moniker. He says his prosecutorial style reflects his political philosophy — an unwavering commitment to a code of right and wrong, meant to protect the public.

‘Those are the rules’

Sullivan, 58, has also always been a rules guy, something he inherited from his father, a phone company employee who moved the family from a three-decker in Boston’s South End to a small house in Holbrook when Mike, the oldest boy, began elementary school.

By the time Sullivan was at Boston College High School, his father had acquired a company car. Thomas Sullivan adored his son, but New England Telephone rules said only employees could ride in company cars — so Mike had to find his own way to trek to school, even though his father was heading in his direction. “If those are the rules, those are the rules,” Sullivan said.

The product of a large, working-class, Irish-American family — even in Holbrook, they had one bathroom for nine people — Sullivan hauled pallets and emptied waste bins at Gillette Co. before going to college and law school at night. But he talks sparingly about his modest background, and he never publicly mentions his daughter’s military service, details a different politician would tout.

Chitose Suzuki/AP
Sullivan departed in 2005 with Kenneth Kaiser of the FBI after announcing that Thomas Finneran, then State House speaker, had been indicted on perjury charges.

He dropped out of Boston College at 18 after a year as a commuter student not because he lacked ambition but because he brimmed with it, knowing even then that he wanted to be a lawyer and run for office. With money scarce, he took the job with Gillette, returning to BC at night two years later, the company reimbursing his tuition. By 20, he was married and working 50 hours a week while carrying a full undergraduate load. When he started law school, Gillette paid for that, too. He rose to Gillette’s management ranks before leaving to practice law in Holbrook with a Suffolk Law classmate, James McGovern, a Rhode Islander who brought courtroom experience. “Mike was the community guy,” beloved in town, which helped them pick up clients, said McGovern, who later followed Sullivan to the US Attorney’s office and is now a district court judge.


Almost immediately, Sullivan began campaigning to win back the state House seat once held by Andrew Card, then a top adviser to President George H.W. Bush and a Sullivan acquaintance who would become a mentor. What Sullivan lacked in funding he made up for with an army of volunteers, unseating Democrat Emmet Hayes in 1990. He linked Hayes to taxes and Michael Dukakis, outgoing governor, while riding the coattails of Governor-elect William Weld.

In his second term, Sullivan lost a bid for minority leader but won a seat on an influential conference committee, helping to write the state’s 1993 education reform law, which introduced charter schools, MCAS testing, and more equitable state funding to balance the property tax in poorer communities.

Easily reelected, Sullivan talked about running for Congress but dreamed of being Plymouth district attorney, a post held by a popular incumbent Sullivan was reluctant to challenge, William C. O’Malley. When O’Malley died unexpectedly at 52 in 1995, Weld picked Sullivan to replace him. Sullivan won the job outright at the polls in 1996.

As district attorney he set the template for his term as US attorney, starting in 2001: tough on crime, responsive to victims and their families. Through it all, he was the same Mike Sullivan, McGovern said, recalling his friend’s reluctance to reveal that he won the book prize for criminal law in school and to appear in front of the camera when Forbes magazine arrived 25 years later for a feature on the success of Sullivan’s health care fraud unit.

His name was on the wall, and he had created the dedicated unit, but he insisted that the team doing the work be photographed, demurring that he created the unit at the recommendation of an experienced assistant US attorney, Michael Loucks.

In late 2006, Bush named Sullivan acting director of ATF and sought to nominate him permanently the following year. But a rogue group of Senate Republicans successfully stalled a vote on Sullivan until the end of Bush’s term, out of frustration with the ATF more than with Sullivan.

Still, he avoids citing his obvious personal example when discussing dysfunction in Washington.

“That’s like the $64,000 question, I guess. I don’t know . . . Being boastful is not something that has ever come . . . easy . . . for me,” Sullivan said haltingly. “There’s very few things, unless it’s something bad, where I should be taking full credit for.”

Strict sentencing approach

Sullivan’s critics say he was best suited for the office of district attorney, which handles state crimes as they occur in a specific county and prosecutes them in courts that give more discretion to judges than the federal system.

The US Attorney’s office picks its spots, often investing in longer, more sophisticated probes of corruption and white-collar crime. In the 1990s, Sullivan’s predecessor, Donald Stern, used the powerful tools of the office and longer, less-flexible sentences of federal court to selectively prosecute drug kingpins.

Some federal judges — especially Mark Wolf, but also Nancy Gertner and William Young — rebuked Sullivan for expanding that approach in what they considered a haphazard and punitive fashion, netting smaller fry and hauling them up from state to federal court to secure longer incarcerations.

Tom Landers/ Globe Staff/ File
Sullivan spoke with reporters at the Hopkinton Sportsman’s Club, where State Police revisited the site of their previous search for a buried body on the word of Stephen “The Rifleman" Flemmi.

“I can say now that I’m no longer on the bench that there was real injustice that came about as a result of those charging policies — real, palpable injustice,” said Gertner, a liberal former judge now teaching at Harvard.

Critics said he was clogging the court, wasting staff time with district attorney-type work, and sweeping into prison a generation of urban males, while continuing to rely on harsh sentencing guidelines even after the Supreme Court rendered them advisory instead of automatic.

Sullivan disputes the critique, saying he wanted to make neighborhoods safer.

But several experienced prosecutors left the office over the changing approach; others gritted through it.

“You would have people literally saying, ‘My office requires that I recommend X,’ and you knew what that meant,” Gertner said.

Gerry Leone, who spent five years as Sullivan’s antiterrorism chief and first assistant before becoming Middlesex district attorney, said Sullivan’s commitment to strict sentencing came from his focus on victims, his sense of duty to the White House, and his past as a lawmaker, respecting guidelines authorized by Congress, if diminished by the Supreme Court.

“Mike followed the rules. He was told what Attorney General Ashcroft and President Bush’s policies would be, and he carried them out,” Leone said. “I think it was unfair to criticize him with his Maximum Mike moniker, because I found him to be much more flexible than that.”

Whether Sullivan’s sentencing approach came from obedience or ideology, his friendliness with Ashcroft — who later hired Sullivan as a partner in his law firm — and embrace of the former attorney general’s charging and sentencing directive make unlikely selling points in Massachusetts. In an interview, Sullivan suggested “there were dozens and dozens of cases” in which his office broke ranks to seek lighter charges and sentences than the maximum. He cited one involving an elderly man who had just lost his severely disabled daughter and was caught selling adulterated, misbranded powder to cancer patients that proved harmless. But he could not immediately think of a case involving street drugs.

Instead, he took issue with his critics’ assertion that drug cases could be nonviolent, even if no weapons were found. Walking Brockton’s streets as district attorney, he wanted to sweep away the violence he saw lurking behind every deal.

“I’ve always had an extreme sensitivity to victims,” Sullivan said. “I’ve been in far too many crime scenes, and seen the horrible consequences of violent crime, seen the huge void that families have had to suffer through, from the DA’s office in working with surviving family members and murder victims, [to] the US attorney’s office in terms of 9/11.”

An uphill battle in Mass.

Sullivan’s politics would clearly play better in a redder state. In Massachusetts, “he’s running an uphill battle,” said Card, the former top adviser in both Bush presidencies.

Card hopes voters will overlook select policy differences to see the character of a man who “earns respect without demanding it.”

“He is a gentleman, and I think he would bring civil dialogue back to the debate,” said Card, promoting Sullivan as political diversity for the state’s all-Democratic delegation. “It’s not in the best interests of Massachusetts to have everybody sitting on the same side of the aisle.”

Still, Republicans who win statewide office here tend to tack to the middle. Sullivan’s fund-raising e-mails, however, tout “unwavering commitment to proven conservative principles.” His opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and belief that gun laws do not need tightening, only enforcement, place him to the right of GOP primary opponents Daniel B. Winslow and Gabriel E. Gomez. He classifies himself as a “social justice/fiscal conservative person,” drawing on his Jesuit education. Sullivan’s campaign counts as supporters several relatives of homicide victims whose cases were handled by his office, and with whom he has stayed in touch.

After Les Gosule’s daughter, Melissa, was raped and fatally stabbed by a stranger who offered her a ride when her car broke down in 1999, Sullivan was as much grief counselor and guide to the legal system as he was prosecutor. Sullivan did not personally argue the case, but he quietly and consistently made himself available to Gosule.

“No matter any silly questions you’d ask, he’d always take the time to answer them,” even if you stopped in unannounced, Gosule said. “He’d give you a hug, he’d give you a handshake . . . and he had a voice that was very soothing. He made you feel comfortable.”

Sullivan said sometimes social justice trumps fiscal conservatism. In 2006, US District Judge Joseph L. Tauro asked Sullivan to investigate the proposed closing of the Fernald Development Center, a 200-acre throwback to the days of institutionalizing the mentally retarded. Sullivan agreed with Governor Mitt Romney’s administration that the school was a financial drain. But moving its aging residents after all these years “could have devastating effects” and destabilize a vulnerable population, outweighing the savings to taxpayers, Sullivan ruled.

Though Sullivan drew the ire of undocumented-immigrant advocates for his role in a 2007 raid on a New Bedford factory, he said he had earlier spoken up for immigrants as a human resources manager at Gillette, creating English as a second language and adult diploma programs for factory laborers.

“If I had the opportunity to meet everybody in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I think I’d say it’s not an uphill battle at all,” Sullivan said. “People would see a lot of themselves in me. And realize — notwithstanding that others might try to put labels on me — that at the end of the day I’m a thoughtful, good, and decent person.”

Sullivan is so low-key that when he arrived without aides to the first debate, he slipped past the cameras and the crowds unnoticed to the Stonehill College stage. On the trail, he has an unhurried manner. “A handshake is never wasted,” Sullivan says.

At a Mexican restaurant in Taunton, he chatted with a woman eating lunch even after she revealed she was visiting from Dallas. “I got a good friend of mine used to be the US attorney down in Dallas named John Ratcliffe. So I’m gonna tell him when I get in my car, ‘I just met somebody from Dallas and she’s much nicer than you,’ ” Sullivan said, smiling. “Enjoy your visit.”

Outside, Sullivan stopped to talk with a retiree from a defunct wire manufacturer.

“Mike Sullivan, running for United States Senate,” he said, extending one hand while gesturing with the other to the official guiding him around, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. “You know the sheriff, the sheriff of Bristol County?”

“Heard of him,” the man grunted.

“Heard of him?” Sullivan said. “Well, here he is!”

“Don’t know if it was anything good about him,” the man said.

Sullivan chuckled. “Well, he hasn’t heard about you, which is a good thing.”

The man furrowed his brow, realized it was a joke, and doubled over with laughter. Soon they were chatting like old friends, less about politics than others the man knew named Sullivan.

“There you go, can’t forget it,” the candidate said. “Take care.”

The man nodded. “I won’t forget you when I go to the polls.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.