Rachael Rollins, a champion of criminal justice reform, was undone by her political activity (2024)

Over the past several years, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins has become a leading — and polarizing — figure in a national movement to confront racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But it was politics, not policy, that unraveled her career, leading her to announce Tuesday that she will resign at the end of the week.

Two scathing reports issued Wednesday by federal investigators found that Rollins used her position to try to help Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo’s campaign to replace her as Suffolk County district attorney, including leaking information to the press to suggest the Justice Department was investigating his opponent in that race, then-acting District Attorney Kevin Hayden. The Office of Special Counsel and the Justice Department’s inspector general both concluded that, despite serving as U.S. attorney, Rollins was a de facto campaign advisor to Arroyo.

Rollins was apparently concerned that Hayden was going to roll back her efforts to reduce prosecutions of low-level offenders.

Late Wednesday, Arroyo released a statement saying he was not contacted during the federal investigations. He said he reviewed the reports after their release and noted neither "allege any wrongdoing on my part."

In addition, Rollins attended a Democratic Party fundraiser in July 2022 in Andover, Massachusetts, where First Lady Jill Biden was in attendance, “while on duty, in her official capacity, and using a government vehicle” — even though she had been advised by her own staff and by Justice Department officials not to attend, according to the Office of Special Counsel report. Rollins then claimed to investigators she was there to attend a U.S. Attorney’s Office event in Andover, not the fundraiser, which is “wholly contradicted by the evidence.”

While it is not uncommon for executive branch officials to be accused of violating the Hatch Act, which basically prohibits them from being involved in partisan political activity, the Office of Special Counsel said in its report Wednesday that Rollins’ actions “are among the most egregious transgressions of the act that [the office] has ever investigated.”

Rollins is not the first person to be forced out of the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office. In 1989, conservative Republican Frank McNamara Jr. — appointed by Ronald Reagan — resigned less than two years into his term after it was revealed he had falsely told federal investigators that his predecessor William Weld had smoked marijuana while serving as U.S. attorney. Twenty-eight of the prosecutors on McNamara’s staff had written to then-Attorney General Dick Thornburgh asking for McNamara’s removal.

But while McNamara was a non-controversial figure who had been confirmed by the Senate unanimously, Rollins was a lightning rod of controversy whose monthslong confirmation process was rescued only by the intervention of Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a 50-50 tie in the Senate — twice.

Rollins was known as a leader in the movement to address structural racism in the criminal justice system. As district attorney, she famously published a list of 15 low-level offenses that her office would not prosecute, such as trespassing, shoplifting and non-violent drug offenses.

“In addition to being low-level, non-violent offenses with minimal long-term impact, they are most commonly driven by poverty, substance use disorder, mental health issues, trauma histories, housing or food insecurity, and other social problems rather than specific malicious intent,” she wrote in a March 2019 policy memo.

Rollins advised prosecutors in the memo to take a broader view of both the social circ*mstances of defendants and the long-term consequences of being dragged into the criminal justice system.

“A criminal record often presents barriers to education, future income, housing, and many other necessary assets and supports proven to help people thrive and succeed in society,” she wrote.

To paint Democrats as a pro-crime party, Republicans jumped on the list and Rollins’ public concerns about police misconduct. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas led the opposition to her confirmation, calling Rollins “one of the most preeminent legal arsonists in the country,” and saying she had “nothing but contempt for the rule of law.”

“When crime spikes in Massachusetts and crime spikes in New Hampshire, Democratic senators who are on the ballot next year are going to answer for it,” Cotton said at the time.

The vote to move Rollins' nomination to the floor and the final vote on approval both deadlocked at 50-50, which led Harris to cast the deciding vote each time.

Violent crime in Massachusetts rose 8% between 2021 and 2022. There has been no spike in crime since Rollins took office in January 2022.

Still, Rollins’ resignation represents a setback for some prominent Massachusetts politicians who backed her at pivotal moments in her career.

In April 2019, when Rollins was still Suffolk County district attorney, she sparred publicly with then-Gov. Charlie Baker's administration over her approach to criminal justice. At a rally at Dorchester's Prince Hall Lodge at the time, then-Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu sat on stage just to Rollins’ right and applauded after Rollins told the crowd, “I’m not here to fight with people, but get out of my way. We are changing the system.”

In December 2021, after Rollins was confirmed as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts after a bitter battle in the Senate, Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren released a statement to note that they'd recommended Rollins for the job and predicting that she would bring "renewed energy and innovative vision" to the role.

After news of Rollins’ impending resignation broke this week, Wu, Markey and Warren all spoke positively about her legacy.

In contrast, Massachusetts Republican Party chair Amy Carnevale used Rollins’ exit to hit Democrats on criminal justice, saying in a statement that “[t]he dangerous pro-crime and anti-police stands embraced by [Rollins] made her the wrong choice from the beginning.”

After the release of the investigative reports Wednesday, Markey and Warren issued a joint statement saying: “These findings are deeply troubling and we agree with Rollins’s decision to resign. It’s powerfully important that public officials follow high ethical standards and the Justice Department’s work on behalf of Massachusetts will continue uninterrupted.”

Watch: Former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Michael Sullivan and GBH News Senior Investigative Reporter Philip Martin discuss the significance of the findings

One of Rollins' major initiatives as district attorney had been a push to overturn wrongful convictions that occurred under previous district attorneys.

Rollins declined to pursue a lingering gun charge against Sean Ellis, whose wrongful conviction was highlighted in a Netflix documentary and who served 22 years behind bars.

In 2020, she went before the state's Supreme Judicial Court and asked for a new trial for Robert Foxworth, imprisoned for 30 years for a 1991 murder for which he maintained his innocence. Rollins requested that Foxworth be immediately released because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That same year, however, Rollins raged against a court’s decision to release due to the pandemic a Dorchester man accused of stabbing a friend to death following an argument.

SInce being elected to replace Rollins as Suffolk County district attorney, Hayden has maintinted the unit that reviews wrongful conviction claims, though advocates raised concerns last year when the head of the unit was replaced.

As U.S. attorney, Rollins had less independent authority; nonetheless, she established a hotline for reporting incidents of hate and created a civil rights and human trafficking unit in her criminal division to prosecute cases involving civil rights violations, including hate crimes, human trafficking, and police use of excessive force.

Several high-profile cases were also prosecuted during her term, including that of Shaun Harrison, aka “Rev,” a former academic dean in the Boston Public Schools who was secretly a member of the Massachusetts Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation (Latin Kings). Harrison was sentenced this month to 18 years behind bars on racketeering charges.

For many, this and other prosecutions of serious crimes during her terms as U.S. attorney and district attorney, as well cases rendered during her tenure as an assistant U.S. prosecutor from 2007 to 2011, belied detractors’ description of Rollins as “pro-criminal. ” But the term has become a political talking point on the right to hammer criminal reform advocates, and to Rollins’ enemies, she embodied the worst within that category.

This story was updated to include Arroyo's statement about the reports.

Rachael Rollins, a champion of criminal justice reform, was undone by her political activity (2024)
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