Carmen Ortiz Gets One Right

The Lights Of The Federal Prosecutors Office Burn Bright Into The Night

Margery Eagan in the Boston Herald stepped forward to criticize what is happening in the US Attorney’s office in Boston. I was surprised at this because the two major Boston papers have been walking in lockstep over the years in protecting and praising that office despite what seemed to me to be in some instances an obvious horrible lack of judgment.

Ms Eagan deserves praise for her courage. She talks about the deal just given to ex-Chelsea Housing Director Michael McLaughlin who was earning hundreds of thousands of public money but was caught red-handed filing false reports about how much money he was being paid. The federal prosecutors have made a deal with this man who was putting in his pocket tons of money that could have been used to better the condition of the poor folk living in government housing. McLaughlin is hoping he can avoid prison where he belongs.  He’ll get a “stay out of jail” pass if he becomes a cooperating witness for the government and gives it some juicy tidbits on which to chew..

It seems pretty bad to hear the prosecutors making a deal with this man. But a closer look at what the prosecutors brought about shows that it was a smart move. I’d suggest that rather than criticizing Ortiz’s office for that case, it deserves a little bit of commendation. It made a silk purse out of the sow’s ear.  I say this because it seems to me the prosecutors had very little to work with but some had the imagination to turn McLaughlin’s actions into a crime.

The Globe reported“On Tuesday, McLaughlin admitted that for at least four years he intentionally understated his actual salary by about $140,000 annually out of fear that disclosure would trigger a federal investigation into his activities.”  As best I understand the case, McLaughlin was grossly overpaid. In FY 2011 he took home about $360,000 a year, twice if not three times the governor’s take home pay.  This absurd salary happened because the people who were suppose to monitor his payments didn’t do their jobs. He took advantage of that group of sad sacks and jammed his pockets full of money. However, it was all on the up-and-up. No crime was involved in overpaying this greedy man.

In November 2011 a brazen McLaughlin boasted about his salary to the Globe saying he was a super star. He deserved every penny he made. Yet in truth, as the old Ukrainian saying would have it, “a thief feels his hat is on fire.” McLaughlin felt he did not deserve what he was putting in his wallet and tried to hide it. He felt that reporting his true salary would be like a red flag so he under reported his income to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which provided the bulk of his agency’s funding. 

According to the prosecutors in FY 2008 McLaughlin under reported his income by about $91,000 ($242,908 vs $151,945 reported); in FY 2009 by about $108,000 ($267,199 vs $156,503); in FY 2010 by about $115,000 ($275,215 vs $160,415); and in FY 2011 about $123,000 ($283,471 vs $160,415).

The HUD officials in FY 2008 had no problem with the reported $151,945 so who can say they’d object to $242,908. If he reported his actual income and someone objected the worst that would have happened is HUD may have told him he was a little overpaid and to cut it back a bit. Who even knows if anyone read the report he was filing. Without knowing it for sure I’d suggest McLaughlin’s pay was a small percentage of the overall budget. On one hand you can think “what’s the big deal – he didn’t steal anything – he underreported his authorized income – it really didn’t affect anything – it’s not a crime in America to be greedy.”

An alert prosecutors thought otherwise. Using 18 USC sec.1519 that makes it a crime punishable by 20 years for making a false entry in a document with intent to “impede, obstruct or influence the proper administration of that matter” a prosecutor charged McLaughlin with violating that statute asserting by understating his income McLaughlin was impeding, or obstructing, or influencing the proper administration of HUD’s oversight of the Chelsea Housing Authority’s budget.

I’d figure that was going to be a tough sell to a jury. Despite this they had the guts to go with it. Kudos to them because the charge would only put McLaughlin in jail for around a year. That’s hardly a hammer with which to hit someone. Facing such short time they had to believe this would be a trial which they could very well lose. I had to think the last thing they figured was that McLaughlin’s bravado would flee faster than a nice day in the New England winter. He folded his hand, surrendered unnecessarily, and gave the prosecutors a brilliant victory.

He’s now available to the Massachusetts Attorney General and the federal prosecutors to provide an inside view of what’s going on inside the political world that allowed a stiff like him to have a salary that ballooned so far out of proportion. There’s also 7 million dollars of money that went to the Chelsea Housing Authority that apparently can’t be accounted for.

He can tell them where it went. McLaughlin’s running scared, is incapable of doing a year in jail, so he should be a font of information. He is the type of guy you want to work with. He’s at the bottom of the pyramid. He has no criminal record and he can’t do time. He may have  evidence against people above him or may not.

The prosecutors know they need more than this man’s word since he’ll say anything to stay on the street. They need to have substantial corroboration if they plan to move against people in higher positions or whose reputation will be damaged merely by being charged. Enough of the overcharging and throwing RICO charges at people without criminal records. Do what you did in this case, charge for the crime committed.

Marjorie Eagan ended her column by saying with respect to Ortiz’s office, “I can’t see the justice in it anymore.” I say that Margery is barking up the wrong tree in this case. This is an example of how the prosecutors should act. What’s particularly brilliant about the deal is that no matter how hard McLaughlin labors, the punishment is left open to the judge who can still hit McLaughlin with prison.

It’s a case worth watching. Let’s see if the prosecutors follow through as they should.