Who benefits by serial allegations of corruption? The US Attorney’s Office

If federal prosecutors hoped the trial of John O’Brien might have focused our collective attention on the sins of political patronage, they seem to have failed.  It’s the power of the US Attorney’s office that increasingly draws scrutiny.  And not for the first time.

In January 2013, Professor Cunningham said it might be time to investigate US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’ office.   Yesterday, WBZ’s Jon Keller wondered: “has her power left her blind to the consequences of its abuse?”

During the course of the O’Brien trial, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo emerged as the lead player in what prosecutors have called a criminal conspiracy involving patronage at the Probation Department.

That the Speaker and his aides remain unindicted in said conspiracy seems to bother the prosecutors not at all.  John O’Brien is accused of bribing DeLeo.  And yet it is only O’Brien and his deputies who sit in trial.

The man who took the “bribe” has not been charged.

Got that?

What we have here is another clash of political cultures and a further attempt to criminalize politics.

The Speaker of the House is an easy target because, say it with me now, we’ve had three felony convictions in a row!  We must be the very model of political corruption.

And yet, when you peel back the layers, you find something that is unsettling: the relentless pursuit of political figures in the Commonwealth that borders on prosecutorial zealousness if not outright abuse.

The latest outrage is trying Bob DeLeo without formally charging him with a crime and thus avoiding the need to offer actual proof.  This tactic raises a question of how we define our political culture.

Is Massachusetts really a hotbed of political corruption or have sustained allegations of corruption helped advance the political aspirations of one group of politicians over another?  And make no mistake, the US Attorney’s office is one group that has benefited greatly by the mantra of corruption.

Recall US Attorney Bill Weld’s relentless pursuit of Boston Mayor Kevin White and Senate President William Bulger.  The same Bill Weld who, as Governor, happily acclimated himself to the very political climate he had previously considered corrupt.

And as to the three felony convictions of Speakers?  Consider my colleague’s pushback on this narrative:

. . . the first two were largely coerced into plea deals. Charles Flaherty was hounded for several years and gave up to avoid the risk of prison time and the continued financial drain of defending himself against a foe with nearly unlimited resources. Thomas Finneran faced a similar situation. As Attorney Harvey Silverglate has argued, Finneran had a very defensible case against the charges facing him, but when the government offered a plea deal with no prison time versus the recommendation of prison should Finneran be convicted at trial, the speaker was all but compelled to take the deal. The Finneran case and many others are detailed in Silverglate’s book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.

Speaker Sal DiMasi’s treatment as a federal prisoner has been a travesty of serious proportions.  Silvergate called it “criminal” and the US Attorney’s office is again implicated.

But perhaps you hold a certain disdain of politicians and shed no tears for the House Speakers who have been subjected to power of the US Attorney’s office.  Then you might just reflect on the death of Aaron Swartz.

To be sure, the case against John O’Brien has revealed something ugly about Beacon Hill politics: far too many entrenched legislators view the Commonwealth’s agencies as employment troughs for the sometimes unqualified.  Thomas Farragher in today’s Globe sums it up perfectly: “This was the crack cocaine of patronage.”

Patronage at this level is as much a disservice to the concept of the public good as writ large efforts at privatization.

But the O’Brien trial strikes me as just another example of the politics by other means that seeks criminal convictions for those who may be guilty of political or ethical lapses.  It reminds me of the wasted state prosecution of Tim Cahill in 2012.

It is generally best to let politics tame politics.  Movements, opposition parties, Governors, grass-roots activism, elections can move a political culture.  But bringing in the unlimited resources of federal prosecutors who have their own agenda and can use the threat of prison to demand compliance is a perversion of normal politics.

And it is undeniable that it benefits the US Attorney’s office that we believe their contention that our political culture is unforgivably corrupt.  Acquiescence to that belief allows their continued pursuit of political leaders.

The great Harold Lasswell defined politics as “who gets what, when, and how.”  What do federal prosecutors get when they help to further a belief that is widely held due in no small measure to the zealousness, and potential abuse, of their office?  If Massachusetts is corrupt to its core, then federal prosecutors must continue to march untrammeled through it in order to make it right.  That requires additional power and additional resources.

After watching prosecutors over the past two weeks, I join my colleague is suggesting that the time is now well past for us to commence an investigation into the US Attorneys office.

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
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