Political corruption cases generate big headlines — and big push back.
Just ask US Attorney Carmen Ortiz. She made a big splash when she indicted two aides to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on charges they forced organizers of a music festival to hire union workers. But now, with Walsh presumed to be her ultimate prize, a posse of critics is throwing cold water on the prosecution.
Martha Coakley — a former attorney general who mostly steered away from political corruption cases while in office — is openly challenging Ortiz's pursuit of City Hall wrongdoing. "You'd like to think the focus would be on those organizations like human trafficking rings, drug smuggling rings, the kind of organizations that in and of themselves represent a threat to safety, public safety," Coakley told the Huffington Post. Added Coakley: Ortiz's bosses at the US Department of Justice should ask, "What is the focus of this? And not only what are you choosing to investigate and indict, but how are you handling that process in terms of your obligations as prosecutors — and fairness?"
In that same Huffington Post article, Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge, called the indictments "an abuse of power." And Harvey Silverglate, a renowned criminal defense lawyer who never encountered a federal prosecutor he didn't think was overreaching, said Ortiz "had a long history of what I consider to be highly questionable prosecutions, particularly against political figures."
Other legal power players are also playing defense for Walsh. During an interview on Boston Herald Radio, Attorney General Maura Healey declined to comment directly on the City Hall indictments. But she gave the mayor her full vote of confidence, saying, "I think that Mayor Walsh has done really wonderful things. We've had great working relationships and partnerships over the last 18 months."
With this prosecution, Ortiz looks bold. Maybe even brazen. She charged the two Walsh aides with extortion under the federal Hobbs Act — right after the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a former Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell, on extortion charges that were also filed under Hobbs. McDonnell received gifts but couldn't deliver results; hence, no crime, the Supreme Court ruled. The two Walsh aides allegedly convinced festival organizers to hire union workers, but received nothing in return — just jobs for others.
To Ortiz's critics, this pursuit is a last-ditch effort to buff up her lackluster legacy at Walsh's expense. It follows bad feelings connected to her prosecution of relatively low-level employees in a state probation department scheme that gave job hiring preferences to candidates recommended by state legislators. That and other prosecutions raise judgment issues about Ortiz's tenure.
Still, on Ortiz's watch, Whitey Bulger and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were brought to justice. And by pursuing political corruption, she's doing what has become, by default, the US Attorney's job. Scott Harshbarger, the last AG to make political corruption a priority, paid for it later, when Democratic Party leaders abandoned him during an unsuccessful run for governor.
It fell to the US Attorney's office to prosecute three former speakers of the House — Charlie Flaherty, Tom Finneran, and Sal DiMasi. The US Attorney's office also prosecuted former state senator Dianne Wilkerson and former Boston city councilor Charles Turner.
And now Ortiz is pursuing Walsh — just like a US Attorney named Bill Weld once relentlessly pursued Mayor Kevin White. Weld never charged White with any crime, but the headlines catapulted him onto the political stage, and eventually led to his election as governor. Of course, Weld is a Republican, so the sin of pursuing political corruption was forgiven.
There's no such forgiveness with Ortiz. She will need a stronger case than her critics think she has to prove them wrong.