Prosecutors and the Unrepentant

Yesterday Lt. Governor Tim Murray announced he would resign to take a $200,000 per year job with the Worcester Chamber of Commerce. This would suggest that Murray and the Chamber believe he is at little risk of being indicted by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz or Attorney General Martha Coakley for campaign finance violations he may have committed along with felon Michael McLaughlin, former head of the Chelsea Housing Authority.

McLaughlin in turn will walk or serve a very short sentence on his federal plea deal and is not likely to face any state time for campaign finance violations. Our score card would read: Prosecutors get publicity for corruption crusades, McLaughlin and Murray walk. Can that be right?

According to the Boston Globe’s story on McLaughlin’s plea deal with the federal government for hiding his inflated salary, the former Chelsea Housing Authority head would get a light sentence or no time if he provides “substantial assistance” to the feds in other criminal investigations – the story does not say who the feds were interested in, but they were looking into $7 million in federal grants to the Housing Authority that disappeared. It does say that Attorney General Martha Coakley was “conducting an energetic investigation into McLaughlin’s illegal political fund-raising” – with Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray the probable target. McLaughlin would be unlikely to face any time on a state campaign finance charge.

I had assumed that the federal government was looking at Murray as well. But the other day the Globe reported that the feds are interested in HUD employees who may have tipped off McLaughlin to upcoming inspections of apartments so that the housing chief could have time to rig the inspections.

The Globe also did a lengthy piece on McLaughlin’s career, reporting that he has been the target of no fewer than five previous investigations all, strangely enough, ending with no criminal charges. Guy Santagate, a former Chelsea city manager who tried to prevent McLaughlin’s being hired, said “This is an extremely well-connected guy. He has friends at every level. This is not some clerk who got tempted over some petty cash. This is a shrewd, cunning operative who has survived for decades.”

“[F]riends at every level”? Let’s think back to when the latest McLaughlin scandal broke. On November 12, 2011 the Globe broke a story about former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger’s efforts to get McLaughlin a deal. Yes Scott Harshbarger, the state’s Mr. Clean, the guy called in to head almost any commission to investigate wrongdoing in the commonwealth. Here is something from the Globe’s story:

Harshbarger called Governor Deval Patrick on the governor’s cellphone this week trying to cut a deal on behalf of McLaughlin, whose entire agency is now under investigation by the FBI, the attorney general, and several other agencies over his extraordinary pay and his efforts to collect a state-record pension.

Patrick was alarmed by the call, during which Harshbarger asked if McLaughlin could end the controversy by accepting a lower retirement benefit, according to two people briefed on the phone call. The next day, Patrick’s chief of staff, Mo Cowan, called Harshbarger back and told him not to call on the matter again.

(Full disclosure: I worked for Scott Harshbarger in the Attorney General’s Office and think very highly of him).

McLaughlin looks like he’ll escape his sixth investigation with some minor scrapes and bruises. Murray seems ready to skate off to the Chamber with only some reputational damage.

So are we talking Salem witch trials in these highly publicized political investigations that lead to little? Or are we talking “extremely well-connected guy[s]”? Or something else?




About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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