Federal prosecutors seemed surprised last week when Judge Mark Wolf suggested they had gone too easy on state troopers accused of using an elaborate scheme to collect overtime pay for hours which they didn’t work.
But if they were surprised, they shouldn’t have been. Wolf, an iconoclastic figure on the federal bench, is not afraid to rock the boat and challenge the conventional wisdom, especially when it comes to matters of public corruption.
In an order filed Monday, Wolf said federal prosecutors needed to reconsider widening the scope of their investigation, saying that before he could sentence Trooper Daren DeJong, who pleaded guilty to his role in the overtime scheme, “the court must determine whether there is jointly undertaken criminal activity, including but not limited to an uncharged conspiracy. . . .” And, as to DeJong specifically, “the court must decide whether ‘the remaining charge adequately reflects the seriousness of the actual offense,’ ” Wolf wrote.
Wolf suggested that DeJong could blow the investigation into the OT scheme wide open, that what took place was not merely improper payroll padding but racketeering.
“It is in the interest of justice to provide DeJong and the government time to confer concerning DeJong’s publicly expressed willingness to seek to substantially assist the government in the investigation or prosecution of one or more other individuals,” Wolf wrote.
Wolf’s interest would have been piqued, I’m guessing, by a line in DeJong’s plea for leniency that his lawyers filed. DeJong’s lawyers wrote that although he did not cooperate with federal prosecutors, he agreed to cooperate with Attorney General Maura Healey’s Public Corruption Unit “after observing that many of those within the State Police command-structure who helped foster the culture in which the misconduct developed had yet to be prosecuted.”
That line suggested there was far more coordination to the overtime scheme than previously acknowledged, i.e., a conspiracy.
Wolf has been here before. In 1997, he forced the FBI to admit publicly that it had used the South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger as an informant, then convened a series of hearings that peeled back, layer by layer, the unholy alliance between Bulger and the FBI.
And in another case that showed the impact of his iconoclasm from the bench, the Department of Justice reprimanded a federal prosecutor after Wolf accused him in 2003 of misconduct in the handling of a case involving a murder allegedly ordered by a Mafia leader.
Wolf has not hesitated to confront law enforcement officials and prosecutors when he thinks they are not doing their job properly, as he did last week. In 2002, he criticized then US Attorney Michael Sullivan for spending too much time and and too many resources on drug and gun cases that Wolf said belonged in state courts.
More recently, Wolf clashed with prosecutors over the new trial for admitted serial killer Gary Lee Sampson. After Wolf ruled that Sampson should have a new trial, prosecutors pushed hard to have him recuse himself, saying that by appearing as moderator on a film panel on Martha’s Vineyard with a potential witness in the case, Wolf created the appearance of a conflict of interest. Wolf eventually recused himself, citing not the panel but a heavy work schedule.
As a young Justice Department lawyer working under the tutelage of US Attorney General Edward Levi after Watergate, Wolf developed a deep and abiding sense that public corruption has an insidious effect on democracy.
He has spent years promoting the creation of an international anticorruption court, believing that democracies can’t flourish in kleptocracies.
Wolf gave prosecutors until Wednesday to provide an affidavit and memorandum on DeJong, and to indicate whether they want, as the judge unsubtly urged, to request a postponement of his sentencing “to provide DeJong an opportunity to attempt to render substantial assistance to the government.”
A big scandal could get much bigger.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.