A reputation for straight talk – but a record of subterfuge
Report calls Rollins’s actions ‘an extraordinary abuse of her authority’
RACHAEL ROLLINS built her political persona on a straightforward message: What you see is what you get. But it turns out the public got a lot from the US Attorney for Massachusetts over the last year that was anything but a frank message delivered in plain view.
Rollins cultivated a reputation as a tough-talking, progressive reformer who might ruffle feathers, but was up front about it and not afraid to speak out on controversial issues facing a criminal justice system that she said was broken and in need of fundamental change. Two bombshell federal reports released Wednesday undercut that narrative, painting a picture of Rollins not as a reform-minded change agent, but a clever operator who employed behind the scenes moves out of the playbook of old-school politicians.
Though Rollins was barred by the federal Hatch Act from involvement in partisan political activity, the reports show that she was very comfortable with working behind the scenes to damage a candidate she did not support in the race to succeed her as Suffolk district attorney. According to the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and the US Office of Special Counsel, Rollins improperly sought to bolster her preferred successor, Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, and damage his opponent, Kevin Hayden, who had been appointed interim DA by then-Gov. Charlie Baker.
“Her repeated efforts to leak non-public DOJ information for the purpose of harming a political candidate rank among the most flagrant violations of the Hatch Act that OSC has ever investigated,” the Office of Special Counsel said in a sprawling 161-page report. In his letter to President Biden conveying the report, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said Rollins’s behavior “constitutes an extraordinary abuse of her authority and threatens to erode public confidence in the integrity of federal law enforcement actions.”
This covert approach stands in sharp contrast to the political brand that Rollins has cultivated since her 2018 run for DA.
Publicly, Rollins touted transparency and clear commitments. She gained attention – positive and negative – when she released a list of 15 nonviolent misdemeanors for which Rollins said the presumption of the DA’s office would be not to press charges. Rollins said sparing people arrested for more minor crimes criminal records would keep them from getting sucked into the criminal justice system and committing further, more serious offenses.
She opened the books of the office to researchers so they could evaluate whether the policy works. Sometimes lost in the controversy surrounding her policy was that she was mainly building on – but spelling out more explicitly – an approach that her predecessor had already been following.
“I think one of the greatest parts about what I’m doing, that I don’t think happens often, is I’m speaking about them and putting them in writing,” she said of her list of petty crimes that the office would prefer not to prosecute. “So all of this outrage and alarm is only because I said it out loud.”
She was much quieter, however, about her efforts to influence the outcome of the race to succeed her as DA following her appointment as US attorney.
The federal inspector general’s report determined that “Arroyo and Rollins were in frequent communication with each other as the primary election approached, and their communications reflect that Rollins strongly favored Arroyo over Hayden in the race and tried to help him win the primary.”
Rollins “actively supported and was a de facto campaign advisor” to Arroyo, leaking information about her office’s recusal from a potential Justice Department investigation into Hayden and attempting to “surreptitiously disclose” that the DOJ may investigate Hayden for misconduct, the special counsel report said.
She went after the Baker administration for releasing the letter, and had sharp words for then-Attorney General Maura Healey for not jumping to her defense quickly enough. After the governor tried to de-escalate the situation, Rollins took aim at him in a rally organized by community activists.
“This is an example of when someone slaps you in the face and thinks you’re going to turn away and cry,” she said. “And you take your earrings off, roundhouse kick them dead in the face, and then punch them to the ground.”
Jarring words, but she owned them – later offering some regret for them.
It is a very different side of Rollins that emerged from the federal reports, though it shares with her public profile a penchant for playing hardball.
While publicly staying out of the DA’s race, as required by federal rules, the reports say Rollins privately encouraged Arroyo to “keep fighting and campaigning. I’m working on something,” she told him at one point. That something involved her efforts to “plant a story” to Globe and Herald reporters suggesting that federal prosecutors were investigating potential corruption by Hayden for allegedly dragging out a misconduct investigation into a transit police officer, according to the inspector general’s report.Hatch Act violations can involve fines or removal from office, but Kerner said in his letter accompanying the special counsel report’s that Rollins’s planned resignation “would foreclose the possibility of any disciplinary action.”
Rollins has not yet made a public statement on the allegations. Her lawyer, Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general, referred to responses to particular items inside the OSC report and said, “After the dust settles and she resigns, Rachael will make herself available to answer questions.”