Boston U.S. Attorney’s Comments on Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo: Unjust and Unwarranted

Now that the jury in the Massachusetts Probation Department corruption trial has returned its verdict, some comment is needed concerning Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Beforehand, some brief background on this case: The Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office brought this case alleging that John O’Brien, former Massachusetts Probation Commissioner, constructed a scheme with legislators – though not one legislator out of 200 was ever charged – whereby in exchange for hiring legislators’ friends, the Legislature would increase state funding and management powers to O’Brien. As said, no individual legislators were ever formally charged, but the federal prosecutors went out of their way to leak to the media that on the Legislature’s end, House Speaker Robert DeLeo was complicit in the alleged operation.

The Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office should be ashamed of the manner in which they have sullied the name of Robert DeLeo. Without ever charging him, prosecutors hoped to – and sadly have probably succeeded in – attaching DeLeo’s name to these convictions forever. Many in the media were only too willing to bite on this hook baited by the U.S. Attorney – shamefully so. I also noted too few letters to the editor supporting him, whether in The Boston Globe or The Boston Herald. How unfortunate.

This post speaks to a very different type of legislative leader I came to experience recently, than the one that the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s so irresponsibly portrays. This past year, I represented, pro bono, a hard-working nurse who was effectively robbed of more than $10,000 after providing years of in-home care for a profoundly brain-damaged boy. She was facing foreclosure due to these funds having been unjustly taken from her, and state agencies that were involved, refused to budge an inch, forcing litigation that may have taken years to resolve. That is, until Speaker Robert DeLeo got involved, with whom I and WBZ-AM Radio’s “Nightside” host Dan Rea worked closely with. Mr. DeLeo, juggling long days and a very demanding public policy agenda, helped me to right this wrong. I observed a dedicated, caring, responsive and effective political leader – reflecting nothing of the pejoratives attached to his name in this case because of the U.S. Attorney’s actions in this matter.

This development is not only unfortunate, it’s sad. Sad because tarring the name and reputation of an honorable legislative leader like Bob DeLeo will only discourage future such leaders from entering public life. I don’t know whether, or of whom Speaker DeLeo might have spoken positively of in the context of someone’s job application to the Probation Department. But I will say this: If he had, where is the harm? And far more importantly, where is the crime? The practice of elected politicians recommending constituents for government jobs, is no different than you or I recommending a qualified person for a job. There is nothing “wrong” in it, and as long as the applicant is qualified, there is nothing unethical about it, either.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, in their zeal to root out what they interpret to be public “corruption,” has in effect criminalized conduct that just a few years ago wouldn’t have been given a second thought. That is over-reaching, over-zealous, and unjust. If you might have difficulty connecting the danger of prosecutors literally criminalizing conduct that was never before considered criminal, try to imagine this: You’re at your workplace one day, when agents from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office come in and raid it. They seize files, records, computers, notes. That raid is reported in the media, along with your name. Shortly after, federal prosecutors charge you with “corporate corruption,” pursuant to some recent statute that was passed to crackdown on inappropriate corporate business practices. Why? Because you recommended someone you know for a job in the company. Your name, as well as your picture, is printed in the newspapers, and broadcast on TV and radio news.

That hypothetical scenario could become a reality, easier than some people think. Everyone wants honest government, at both the state and federal level. Such is laudable. But to pass well-intended but vaguely-worded anti-corruption statutes that criminalize conduct that few reasonable people would consider anywhere near “criminal,” is dangerous and unwise. As a Boston criminal defense attorney, I can assure readers that such actions expose us all to one day being pilloried by public prosecutors, for doing something that for decades has been perfectly legal. Perhaps one day in the near future we’ll see a law criminalizing public school students giving their teacher an apple. The possible offenses? “Improper gifts to a public employee,” “bribery” and “influence peddling.”

And, oh – on the subject of using influence to get government jobs, and making hiring recommendations that might be connected with prior political favors – U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz might want to remember this: The person who appointed her to her own job? His name is Barack Obama. A prominent Democrat, she supported him for in his election campaigns.

I’m proud to know Speaker Bob DeLeo. His name will endure this episode, as well it should.