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Editorial

Feds blind to State Police ‘conspiracy’

JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

The evidence continues to mount that the State Police overtime scandal is no mere case of a few bad apples wanting to line their pockets, but of a full-blown conspiracy that deserves an equally full-blown investigation and prosecution.

The latest comes from former trooper Heath P. McAuliffe, 41, in a letter to US District Judge Denise Casper prior to his scheduled sentencing hearing next week. McAuliffe is one of seven troopers who, along with a former lieutenant, have pleaded guilty to federal charges that they collected money for overtime they never worked, wrote phony traffic tickets, and falsified records — some of which were later destroyed.

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McAuliffe, an 18-year veteran of the department, in his letter to the judge said that it was time he stopped blaming “the culture.” “When I first learned that I was going to face federal criminal charges, I felt it was unfair,” McAuliffe wrote. “I told myself that almost all of my colleagues at Troop E were doing the same thing, that it wasn’t really a big deal, and that it wasn’t fair that I was one of a handful of Troopers being singled out for federal prosecution and having my career and reputation ruined.”

He went on to say, “It really doesn’t matter that many other Troopers were doing the same thing, that our superior officers knew about it, or that only a handful of us were singled out for federal prosecution.”

Good for McAuliffe for taking responsibility for his actions. But he’s wrong about one thing: It does matter if other troopers were doing the same thing with the knowledge of their supervisors. If what he claims isn’t a conspiracy to defraud the taxpayers — well, what is?

State charges have been brought against three State Police superior officers, who have pleaded not guilty. And a State Police internal audit turned up 36 other troopers who received overtime pay for hours they didn’t work. Those records have been turned over to state and federal prosecutors.

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Sure, the now-infamous Troop E has been disbanded. But real reform and accountability have proved more elusive. The piecemeal approach to federal prosecution is proving ineffective in exposing the extent of the corruption that would simply not be tolerated in any other branch of government.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office is, of course, still in the midst of its investigation, but the painful truth is that the US attorney’s office has better and tougher federal laws at its disposal — if only it chooses to employ them.

That’s a lapse that US District Judge Mark Wolf noted at what was to be the sentencing hearing for retired trooper Daren DeJong, who agreed to plead guilty last January to collecting some $14,000 in overtime he didn’t work in 2016 and another $16,000 in 2015.

“It now appears . . . that this case may involve an uncharged conspiracy or RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] conspiracy, a racketeering enterprise between members of Troop E,” Wolf said the hearing. “You know, people in the same unit . . . it’s an organization, it has a structure, engaging in the same type of illegal conduct.”

And Wolf noted that DeJong has offered up information on at least four colleagues who have not yet been indicted.

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It is somewhat ironic that the US Attorney’s office had no trouble, in Operation Varsity Blues, ensnaring Hollywood celebs and college coaches in a wide-ranging conspiracy. But in a case that goes to the very heart of the integrity of law enforcement in the Commonwealth, well, as Assistant US Attorney Mark Grady told Wolf, prosecutors “didn’t have evidence of a conspiracy” in this case.

Sure, conspiracies are sometimes more difficult to prove. But when proved, they carry a weight that goes far beyond the “few bad apples” theory of wrongdoing. And penalties go beyond the slap on the wrist some troopers have already gotten by way of sentences.

As Wolf, quoting Justice Brandeis, said, “When the government breaks the law, it encourages people to believe they can break the law.” That’s why this scandal should be far from over. Wolf, who has not yet sentenced DeJong, doesn’t offer advice from the bench lightly. The US attorney’s office would do well to give that advice the weight it deserves.