If causing anxiety is a yardstick of influence, US Attorney Andrew Lelling sort of runs Boston right now.
His office is in the midst of a major corruption case involving Boston City Hall, its second. The college admissions scandal is entering its penalty phase, with actress Felicity Huffman scheduled to be sentenced later this week. Embattled Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia has been indicted for the second time in less than a year.
And let’s not forget Judge Shelley Joseph, under indictment for allegedly helping an undocumented defendant slip away from waiting agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Whatever one makes of the individual merits of those cases, that is a remarkable ledger of high-profile cases for a federal prosecutor. In effect, Lelling has claimed the mantle of the new sheriff in town.
So who is Andrew Lelling?
He’s a career prosecutor who worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and in Virginia before coming to Massachusetts. He has a longstanding reputation among colleagues for being judicious (though some critics, like former US District Judge Nancy Gertner, have rethought their praise for him on that score.)
He clearly is not a man who came to Boston to win popularity contests. Lelling made that clear as he announced the controversial indictments of Joseph and retired court officer Wesley MacGregor.
“From certain quarters, I have heard the occasional gasp of dismay, or outrage, at the notion of holding a judge accountable for violating federal law. ‘How dare I,’ ” Lelling said then. “But if the law is not applied equally, it cannot credibly be applied to anyone. If this defendant were a random man or woman on the street, I don’t think I’d be hearing those gasps. You wouldn’t be here and neither would I.”
To his critics, Lelling is suspected of being out to make a mark in the Trump administration, a charge made with frequency after he went after Joseph. Other observers see him as simply willing to follow the path of investigation wherever it may lead. While I strongly disagree with the Joseph indictment in particular, I think it is hard to argue that there is any clear political pattern to the high-profile cases he has pursued. Lelling may be guilty of overzealous prosecution at times, but the evidence of partisanship is thin.
The impact of his aggressive bent is perhaps most keenly felt in City Hall. Just weeks after winning the convictions of two city officials in the Boston Calling case, Lelling has now turned a spotlight on the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal. One former official, John Lynch, is set to plead guilty for accepting a $50,000 payment to push for an extension on a zoning variance.
In response, Mayor Marty Walsh has ordered a review of the Board’s practices by an outside law firm, while also placing longtime close aide William “Buddy” Christopher on leave. Those moves only hint at the anxiety in City Hall, where officials don’t seem to know where Lelling’s investigation is headed or who’s at risk of being ensnared. I heard the word “gloomy” used more than once last week to describe the mood within the Walsh administration.
In the case of the college admissions scandal — in which wealthy parents worked with mastermind William “Rick” Singer to get their kids into prestigious colleges under fraudulent circumstances — the feds showed a surprising bit of leniency last week. They are asking for only one month of prison time for Huffman, who has pleaded guilty and shown great remorse. I think that’s the right call.
But I would be surprised to see that compassion extended to the targets of the office’s corruption prosecutions. Whether we’re talking about the state judiciary or the State Police or City Hall, everyone seems to be fair game for this US Attorney’s office.
That is sure to produce some sleepless nights in the city’s halls of power.