Two major crime lab scandals have engulfed Massachusetts law enforcement in recent years. The massive negative impact that Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak have had on the criminal justice system deservedly soaks up a great deal of media attention, but they are far from the only problems Massachusetts has with prosecutorial authority gone awry. This week, we take a closer look at some disturbing actions that originated in the Plymouth County District Attorney’s office and spilled over to embroil the Bristol and Worcester County offices. Although the facts are difficult to trace, the end point is clear: when left unchecked, prosecutorial politics can endanger reputations, individual constitutional rights, and public safety.
The story starts and ends with Timothy Cruz, the Plymouth County District Attorney who has been in office since 2001. Over the past few years, a number of disconcerting tales emanated from his office. These scandals’ fulcrum is a lawsuit filed by a former assistant district attorney, John Bradley. In 2012, Cruz fired Bradley. According to a lawsuit Bradley filed, Cruz and one of his right-hand leaders at the time, Frank Middleton, “retaliated against [Bradley] because he raised concerns about Cruz’s handling of the office and because [he] refused to donate to his 2010 re-election campaign.” In late March, a federal district court judge ruled that the suit can proceed to trial.
Bradley’s allegations raise serious doubts about whether Cruz managed his office ethically. The complaint indicates that promotion and job stability in the office depended at least in part on financial contributions to the DA’s re-election campaigns. But, Bradley was also worried about how Middleton in particular was handling cooperating witnesses—informants—in high-profile prosecutions. In addition to negotiating down the bail amount and using DA funds to pay bail for at least one snitch, the leadership apparently concealed agreements they made with these witnesses from prosecutors in the office or revealed them at a late stage. The result was delayed disclosure to defense teams and, in one case, a prosecutor being forced to correct the record when a snitch falsely denied having an agreement with the DA’s office. According to the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly report, the climate of dysfunction and poor communication led to almost two dozen prosecutors leaving their jobs in a two-and-a-half year period.
Bradley, now employed by the Worcester County DA, did not go it alone. In his lawsuit, he included affidavits from other members of the Plymouth County DA’s office who shared concerns about the way Cruz and Middleton steered the ship. Former assistant Karen O’Sullivan filed a statement “saying that she, too, felt she had been pressured into contributing to Cruz’s reelection campaigns and that she was subjected to pay inequality due to gender discrimination. O’Sullivan said she left the office in October 2012 after 17 years due to ‘the increasingly negative treatment and hostile environment that I experienced during my last few years.’” O’Sullivan went on to join the Bristol County DA’s office.
Here is where things get really weird. In 2015, defense attorneys representing homicide defendant Michael Goncalves were preparing to call O’Sullivan as a witness to help discredit one of the Plymouth DA’s informants in that case. Before trial, Middleton and Cruz turned over racist emails that O’Sullivan had authored while she worked for the Plymouth DA from 2007 to 2012, which could be used to undermine her testimony at trial. Even better, they claimed they did so to fulfill their obligations to hand over “exculpatory” evidence to the defense team—a curious claim to say the least.
The emails are themselves are disconcerting. O’Sullivan “jokes about Chinese people, makes light of a 15-year-old rape victim and forwards a photograph of a child in a Klux Klux Klan outfit,” according to a local news report. As The Herald News explained, “[t]heir release . . . sparked outrage among Brockton activists, who this week called for an independent investigation into the emails . . . .” They certainly raise difficult questions about O’Sullivan’s judgment and ability to serve with integrity as a prosecutor in Bristol County.
Yet, the emails also raise questions about Cruz, his administration, and his motives. Indeed, as the judge presiding over the Goncalves case pointed out in 2015, if O’Sullivan’s credibility as a witness was such a serious concern for the office, it was odd that the Plymouth DA’s office called her to testify on its behalf in 2014 in a perjury case. Cruz came up with the feeble response that his office only came across those emails recently during the discovery process in the lawsuit that Bradley filed.
It is no stretch to wonder whether vengeance moved Cruz to dish O’Sullivan’s old emails. Other prosecutors had no doubts. The Bristol County DA, Thomas Quinn, defended his decision to hire O’Sullivan and slammed Cruz’s tactics:
If I thought Karen was a racist, Karen would not be working for me,” Quinn told The Standard-Times. Quinn also maintained that the attacks on O’Sullivan are retribution by Middleton. He said there are several possible reasons for the attacks on O’Sullivan’s reputation. One is an affidavit she wrote in support of a former Plymouth County colleague’s [Bradley’s] federal lawsuit against Cruz; her being called as a defense witness in a Plymouth County murder trial; and complaints of an unspecified nature that she filed dating back to 2012 with Cruz about Middleton. “They’re trying to ruin her,” Quinn said. “I think it is outrageous. What is being done to her is wrong, very wrong. I have never seen anything like this in my life. It’s despicable. It’s a clear act of retribution.”
If the goal was to tarnish O’Sullivan’s reputation, Cruz and Middleton nonetheless succeeded—with the hapless O’Sullivan’s assistance. But, if the prosecution seriously believed Goncalves was guilty of homicide, its continued reliance on incentivized witness testimony undid its case. In August of 2015, prosecutors dropped the charges. Whatever informant credibility problems that O’Sullivan would have identified in her testimony were ultimately vindicated. Publicly assailing her did nothing to help their cause. The case collapsed and in doing so, validated the concerns that Bradley shared when he worked for Cruz. Unfortunately, Bradley was shown the door; the unreliable witnesses continued to reap rewards.
Discovery proceedings in the suit Bradley filed also revealed other indiscretions. Evidently, a female employee in the DA’s office complained that First Assistant Middleton had groped her “during a 2014 conference at the Seaport Hotel.” Whether by laziness or a desire to protect his key ally, Cruz waited six months to act on the allegation. According to the Boston Globe’s review of a federal complaint “Even then . . . Cruz admitted he did not read the report of an outside investigator he hired to review the matter, who found that a second employee had made a similar allegation against the same prosecutor.” Middleton eventually resigned in April of 2015, almost a year after the employee brought the matter to the DA’s attention.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about all of this is that Cruz continues to plod along, maintaining his grip on power despite some forceful judicial pushback. He has demonstrated a tendency to lean heavily on unreliable witnesses, coerce “loyalty” (and campaign contributions) from his underlings, protect those close to him even when they abuse their power, and viciously attack people who challenge him. Even when the people he wrongs arguably bring it upon themselves—think of O’Sullivan’s racist and reckless emails—the authoritarian approach is unsettling. Considering that he has been in office for 16 years now, Cruz’s rule may exemplify the ethical ossification that often occurs when a District Attorney has held his post for too long.