Two federal investigations accuse U.S. Attorney Rollins of abuses of powerPlay
Two federal investigations released Wednesday detailed numerous allegations against U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins, from leaking sensitive information to the press and soliciting free Boston Celtics tickets, to meddling in politics in violation of federal ethics rules, in what the U.S. Office of Special Counsel called “an extraordinary abuse of her power.”
Rollins, 52, on Tuesday announced that she would resign by Friday, just a year-and-a-half into an appointment that was hotly contested by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. She made the announcement ahead of the release of two damning reports in a move that may head off disciplinary action in one case.
In a 155-page report, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General said its “most concerning” finding was that Rollins appears to have used her position as U.S. attorney to influence a local election. She allegedly disclosed “non-public, sensitive DOJ information” to a Boston Herald reporter about a potential Justice Department investigation of then-interim Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden.
In the run-up to the September 2022 Democratic primary election, Rollins had contacts with the Herald and with the Boston Globe, the report found, to plant stories so her desired candidate, Ricardo Arroyo, might defeat Hayden in the primary.
Arroyo ultimately lost. But especially toward the end of his campaign, Rollins allegedly had frequent contact with Arroyo, advising him on his candidacy. The two exchanged more than 380 texts and encrypted messages over two months, the investigation found, the vast majority of those discussing the campaign or Hayden, or both.
In some of those missives, Rollins criticized Hayden’s performance as district attorney. In several, she offered Arroyo encouragement, with messages such as, “Outstanding job. Fantastic. Keep it up.” And, “No mercy. Finish him.”
Text messages also show Rollins referred to Hayden as a “buffoon” and a “liar.” In a statement to WBUR, Hayden’s spokesperson said “the report in no way impacts the strong and professional relationship we enjoy with the Office of the United States Attorney in Boston.”
Former federal prosecutor Brad Bailey said it’s critical to separate politics from the office of the U.S. Attorney. "You want them to send a message that politics, that vendettas, that personal grudges, that partisanship has nothing to do with their decision-making process,” he said. “And that's why it's so important to take this seriously and why I think that she had no choice but to resign."
"... one of the most egregious Hatch Act violations that OSC has investigated."The Office of Special Counsel's report, on Rollins' contact with Arroyo
In a statement, Rollins' lawyer, Michael Bromwich, called most of the allegations "minor process fouls." He said Rollins "moved from being an elected official with virtually no restrictions on her activities to the highly regulated environment of the U.S. Attorney’s Office." He added that Rollins could have countered the allegations, but "believed the better course was to step down and end the matter before it overwhelmed her office and DOJ.”
The inspector general said Rollins also disclosed nonpublic DOJ information to the Herald and to the Boston Globe. The probe covered a number of alleged ethics violations. Rollins allegedly accepted payment for travel expenses on two occasions without authorization and “without advising her office of both the true purpose of her travel,” the report said.
Rollins allegedly “routinely” used her personal cell phone to send text messages to her staff, including on matters relating to official DOJ business, the report said. She also allegedly continued to accept donations to her Suffolk district attorney campaign account after she was sworn in as U.S. attorney in January 2022.
In the matter of the Boston Celtics tickets, the report says Rollins solicited 30 free tickets for youth basketball teams in connection with a Boston Safe Neighborhoods event in February 2022. She allegedly also accepted two tickets for herself and improperly had a subordinate staffer coordinate the event, despite being informed she could not use office resources for the activity.
The inspector general’s investigation included a review of documents, emails, phone and text records, as well as encrypted messages. Investigators also interviewed 18 employees and others, according to the report.
In its separate investigation, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel report also found Rollins disseminated information in order to help Arroyo’s campaign.
The Office of Special Counsel investigates potential violations of the Hatch Act, the law which restricts federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities. Their report characterized Rollins’ contacts with Arroyo as “one of the most egregious Hatch Act violations that OSC has investigated.”
Her first violation of the law arose in July 2022, the report said, when Rollins attended a political fundraiser to meet First Lady Jill Biden, disregarding legal advice to avoid appearing in a partisan setting.
In a cover letter to President Biden, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner wrote: “Even if Ms. Rollins resigns, which would foreclose the possibility of any disciplinary action, I hope that this report provides an opportunity for you to emphasize to all federal employees the importance of serving the public in a professional and nonpartisan manner. The American people deserve nothing less.”
Rollins has faced scrutiny ever since Biden nominated her for the role two years ago. The scope of the news has surprised allies and people who have worked with her. Rollins was a fast-rising political star, the first Black woman to be appointed U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts. But she has also been seen as impulsive, showing poor judgment and taking shortcuts with ethics rules that other prosecutors typically avoid.
“Rachael Rollins cut her teeth in state political office,” said Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer. “She thought that she was operating in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, when she was operating in the United States of America.”
In her prior role as Suffolk County district attorney, Rollins faced inquiries by the state attorney general and by the state’s Ethics Commission after a dispute in a parking lot where she flashed her car’s blue law enforcement lights while trying to exit the shopping center. She was cleared in that matter.
Rollins made national headlines as Suffolk County district attorney for her decision to de-emphasize arresting people for 15 low-level crimes, such as trespassing and shoplifting. Senate Republicans, especially Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, criticized that policy as “pro-criminal.”
Cotton mobilized Republicans to vote against her, and the Senate deadlocked on her nomination. Vice President Kamala Harris had to step in twice to break the tie.
Announcing Rollins’ resignation Tuesday, her attorney said she has been honored to serve as U.S. Attorney over the past 16 months, and is “incredibly proud of all her office has accomplished during that limited time.”
Rollins’ first assistant at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Joshua Levy, is expected to take over after she formally resigns. Biden will need to appoint Rollins’ replacement — and that appointee will require Senate approval, in the months heading into a presidential election.
The resignation also comes as Rollins' office handles the high-profile case of Jack Teixeira, the Massachusetts air national guardsman charged with leaking top secret intelligence documents.
Silverglate, the civil liberties lawyer, said he's been a huge supporter of Rollins and her work as a criminal justice reformer.
“It’s very depressing,” he said. “I don’t see how she’s not going to get indicted.”
This article was originally published on May 17, 2023.