From Bill Weld to Andrew Lelling, it’s déjà vu all over again in Boston City Hall.
Another federal prosecutor, nominated by a Republican president, is targeting political corruption in the administration of a Democratic mayor. With his probe into the conduct of officials working for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Lelling — the current US attorney for Massachusetts, who was nominated by President Trump — is walking this shiny new city down an old, familiar path, back to its bad roots.
In the early 1980s, then-US Attorney William F. Weld, who was nominated for the job by President Reagan, undertook a multi-pronged corruption probe into the administration of Mayor Kevin H. White. Weld’s investigation, which led to the indictment or conviction of more than a dozen low-level political operatives, drove White from the office he held for 16 years. It also launched Weld’s political career. He went on to become governor of Massachusetts, unsuccessfully sought other offices, and still craves the national spotlight, as illustrated by his current attempt to run against President Trump.
Today, Weld’s quixotic quest to oust Trump from the White House makes him a hero to Democrats. But his days as a federal prosecutor were not so warmly reviewed. No charges were ever brought against White. However, the relentlessly negative headlines about a federal probe undercut White’s credibility, led to his decision to leave office, and ultimately clouded his legacy. White, who died in 2012, planted the seeds for a new Boston that today we see in full, glorious bloom. Yet his memory is still tainted with corruption by association.
Was it prosecutorial excess, inflamed by political ambition? That was the cry from Weld’s targets and their lawyers; and given Weld’s Captain Ahab-like obsession with White, there’s some evidence to back it up. Yet Weld was also doing the job he was supposed to do, by holding public officials accountable to the public. Some who worked for White were engaged in wrongdoing and got caught. When that happens, the buck should stop in the mayor’s office.
From that perspective, Weld’s prosecution of city hall corruption was a turning point for Boston. It reshaped city politics, by setting a higher bar for what successive mayors defined as acceptable behavior from their underlings. It also discouraged participation in the seedier side of doing the public’s business. A top aide to Raymond L. Flynn pleaded guilty to accepting illegal gifts — after Flynn left the mayor’s office. During the 20 years that Thomas M. Menino was mayor, no subordinate was indicted on corruption charges.
Now, nearly two years into his second term, Walsh faces the third conviction of an aide for charges prosecuted by Lelling’s office. In August, a federal jury found Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan, two city hall officials, guilty of extortion, for pressuring concert organizers into hiring union workers. Then came news that John Lynch, whose city hall experience goes back to Kevin White days, plans to plead guilty to charges that he took $50,000 from a developer to influence a vote on Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeal.
If there’s more to come, it would be tempting — but wrong — to dismiss it as the fruits of a partisan witch hunt, orchestrated by a prosecutor eager to curry favor in Washington.
Lelling has been called “Trump’s point man in Massachusetts,” for putting increased focus on immigration issues, and for press releases that highlight the nationality and immigration status of the defendants. But when it comes to prosecuting political corruption, he’s following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Carmen Ortiz, who was nominated by President Obama. Indeed, the controversial prosecutions of Brissette and Sullivan started under Ortiz and were picked up by Lelling. If Lelling has political ambition beyond his current office, it will eventually reveal itself.
Meanwhile, the déjà vu feeling that should trouble us is not that another federal prosecutor nominated by a Republican president is targeting another Democratic mayor. It’s that once again, there are corruption cases to be prosecuted.