Will the latest revelation of corrupt antics by the Massachusetts State Police finally crank up the heat on Governor Charlie Baker to 620.3 degrees Fahrenheit?
That’s the melting point of Teflon — when things start to stick.
Baker’s ongoing escape from accountability regarding this and other state agency problems remains one of the true mysteries of Massachusetts politics. Somehow he manages to exude efficiency, even when results don’t measure up.
Now it turns out that in January 2018 — a year into an internal audit of overtime abuse — police destroyed years of traffic citation records that are key evidence in the payroll scandal currently under investigation by federal and state prosecutors. In other words, under Baker’s watch, police destroyed evidence critical to an ongoing investigation into their own agency.
To borrow from Baker, that’s serious “stuff.”
As David Abel, the Globe’s environmental reporter, recently recounted, the Baker administration routinely dodges questions on the most innocuous of topics, such as birds. Questions about the State Police are met with similar contempt. For a week, the governor’s aides ignored requests for comment about the record destruction, the Globe’s Matt Rocheleau reported. When Baker finally addressed the matter, he said what he usually says: nothing much. And then he bounded off to Washington, D.C., to talk infrastructure with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
So much for Baker’s promise of top-to-bottom reform of the state’s largest law enforcement agency. Trust had been broken, he said in April 2018, when he and State Police Colonel Kerry Gilpin unveiled a master plan to restore it. Today, Baker defines reform as ending the overtime programs that spawned the fraud and disbanding the unit where it was concentrated. Other promised initiatives “are partially, if not entirely, unfulfilled,” the Globe recently reported.
That’s tinkering — an approach Baker has mastered with other troubled state agencies. It’s not the kind of deep cultural transformation experts hired to review the State Police say is needed. Transformation, after all, starts with new management. Yet under state law, the governor can appoint only internal candidates to lead the State Police. Before last November’s election, Baker said he would be open to changing the law, but has done nothing to advance that agenda. This week, he was front and center testifying before state lawmakers for a bill that would make it easier for law enforcement officials to hold suspects deemed “dangerous.” That’s his criminal justice priority. Not a demand that those who enforce the law actually follow it.
The traffic citations have been used by prosecutors to show that troopers submitted fraudulent paperwork to collect overtime. Eight troopers have pleaded guilty to federal embezzlement charges that go back to 2015. However, the overtime programs that were abused go back more than a decade. When US District Judge Mark Wolf pressed federal prosecutors on why they didn’t go back further in time to determine the scope of the fraud, they said records had been destroyed.
Another 38 troopers have been connected to the scheme, which is also being investigated by Attorney General Maura Healey and the agency itself. While calling for an internal investigation, Baker apparently didn’t know records needed for it were destroyed. When told that’s what happened, his response was that State Police “are cooperating with the AG. They’re cooperating with the US attorney. If there’s information that either of those operations need, I’m sure they’ll make it available to them.” Yeah, right. If the records were shredded or otherwise destroyed, they are eternally unavailable.
There are honest state troopers whose reputations are being dragged through the mud of this corruption scandal. Yet the mud slides off Baker. Isn’t it time for something to stick?
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.