Head Hunter


In the beginning — years before U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan's
indictment of former state House Speaker Tom Finneran for perjury and
obstruction of justice plunged the two into a winner-take-all death
match—Tommy rubbed Mike the wrong way over the strangest thing.

It was back in the early 1990s, when both men were serving in the
House. Sullivan was a newly elected Republican rep from Abington who
had shocked the establishment by trouncing rising star Democrat R.
Emmet Hayes, husband of former state treasurer and 2002 Democratic
gubernatorial nominee Shannon O'Brien. Finneran was the tightfisted
chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. But it wasn't the
budgetary frugality that bothered Sullivan; he was, like Finneran, a
fiscal conservative. And while Finneran's infamous control-freak
behavior may have chafed more than a few of his colleagues, it didn't
disturb Sullivan, an order-and-discipline junkie himself. Truth is, if
you ignored the contrast between Finneran's larger-than-life
personality and Sullivan's soft-spoken Jack Webb impersonation (and
gave Finneran his hair back), you might mistake the two men for the
same person. Both were born into large, working-class Boston clans.
Both worked their way through college, and delayed their educations to
help their families. Both are hard-working, driven professionals known
to eschew the boozy political social scene in favor of time with
relatives and a handful of close friends. Both are social
conservatives: Finneran made headlines with his opposition to gay
marriage, while Sullivan counts among his one-time mentors and current
friends a former state rep infamous for allegedly homophobic public
statements. Both like to play tough with their professional
adversaries—defiant House members in Finneran's case, alleged criminals
in Sullivan's. Both inspire fierce loyalty from their personal and
political allies. “This is a noble enterprise in which we are engaged,”
Finneran has said of the legislative process.

In fact, in his most extensive comments about his target since the
Finneran indictment started pundits buzzing into overdrive about his
motives, Sullivan, a devoted family man, confesses that the speaker
always struck him as . . . a Mike Sullivan type of guy. “I respected
him,” he says. “I always got the impression he was a very good and
decent person, a good family person.”

What Sullivan had a problem with back in their legislature days was,
of all things, Finneran's handling of a proposed pay raise for a group
of state employees who hadn't had a salary hike in years: judges. Odd,
in hindsight, given that Sullivan's law enforcement career as district
attorney of Plymouth County and then since 2001 as the state's top
federal prosecutor would see repeated public confrontations with the
judiciary—including a notable showdown in which one prominent judge
threatened to have federal marshals drag Sullivan out of a dentist's
chair and into court to answer questions.

But in Mike Sullivan's upright world, all other considerations bow
down before a personal code of honor, which he says dictated his
response to the issue of judges' pay. “I suggested the salary go up the
way it does in other parts of government, through some type of
cost-of-living index—make it automatic,” he recalls. “I was quickly
gaveled down by the speaker, who essentially made it clear that, no, we
want judges coming in here every five or six years seeking a raise. So
you got a sense that there's gotta be some kind of quid pro quo, which
to me I find distasteful, that there should be any kind of quid pro quo
between these independent branches of government.”

On the same general principle, it is unsurprising that Sullivan went
ahead—despite the urging of allies both inside and outside the U.S.
Attorney's Office to take a pass on the risky prosecution—with the
indictment of Finneran for allegedly lying under oath and obstructing
justice during his testimony about a redistricting plan that minority
groups say would have diluted their voting power. It's not, as
conventional wisdom about the case has suggested, that Sullivan was
moved to action by a three-judge panel's statement questioning the
truthfulness of Finneran's testimony. Judges, you'll remember, don't
impress Mike Sullivan; he has been critical of sentencing decisions
throughout his career, and rails against the common judicial practice
of private lobby conferences, dismissing it as “horse-trading behind
closed doors.” Nor, he says, was it about his own political ambitions,
which he admits harboring and which only raise the stakes in this
prosecution higher.

For Sullivan, the motivation for the Finneran case is precisely what
he said it was when he announced it: the pursuit of just punishment for
“a severe breach of the public trust [that] serves to diminish
confidence in government and undermine the integrity of our judicial
process.”

Or as Finneran might call it: “a noble enterprise.”

If Sullivan's and Finneran's self-justifying rhetoric sounds
similar, it's no accident. In addition to all their other parallels,
the two men share a trait common among successful people in sharp-elbow
occupations, a gene that can turn troublesome when the carrier wields
special power over others: the inability to recognize and curb their
own excesses. Finneran's symptoms are well documented, from his
needlessly inflammatory characterization of a wealthy NFL owner seeking
public subsidies as a “fat-ass millionaire” (hello, Bob Kraft?) to the
unnecessarily cute testimony in the redistricting case that plunged him
into this showdown with Sullivan, a performance even his staunchest
defenders acknowledge was an unfortunate indulgence in word games.

Less has been said about Sullivan's attack of the disease. As
Plymouth DA, Sullivan earned the nickname “Maximum Mike” with his
consistent advocacy for long sentences. His tough talk appealed to
fellow Republicans like then Governor Paul Cellucci, who recommended
him to newly elected President George W. Bush for the U.S. attorney
job. But while his lock-'em-up attitude played well among people
understandably fed up with the drug dealers, drunk drivers, and
assorted thugs who clutter the district court dockets, reviews for
“Maximum Mike” have been decidedly mixed at the federal level. “In
virtually every situation, he says, 'Go for the maximum,'” says veteran
Boston defense attorney Harvey Silverglate, whose forthcoming book
about alleged federal misuse of “vague” statutes covering a range of
commercial and professional activities will include scathing references
to Sullivan's office.

“Professionals understand nuances,” Silverglate says. Sullivan “acts
as if he doesn't see nuances. He really likes to have the image and
reputation of a really tough guy.” Silverglate is especially incensed
by what he calls the “ridiculous” Finneran case, which he sees as
unprovable and a prime example of Sullivan's flawed judgment in
“dealing with very fine calls about whether something is illegal or
not.”

For his part, when told of Sullivan's comments, Finneran clenches
his jaw, shakes his head, and declines to respond, other than to say of
the long-ago judicial pay-raise bill: “Revenues aren't on automatic
pilot. That would have been a recipe for disaster.” Call it a standoff
of the righteous, the indignation of the backbencher Republican at odds
with the hubris of the speakership.

If Mike Sullivan seems especially allergic to disorder, it's only
because he's spent 50 years breathing the pure moral oxygen of orderly
environments. Sullivan is the product of an “active but not chaotic”
upbringing in the tidy bedroom suburb of Holbrook, one of seven
children of a career phone company employee and a mother who instilled
teeming self-confidence in their second-oldest child. He recalls a
conversation with his father in which the preteen Sullivan announced
his intention to become a lawyer and a politician when he grew up.
“I've always felt this was what I wanted to do,” he says. He went to
Boston College High School and was on the double-Eagle track, but quit
Boston College over his parents' objections after his freshman year “to
save up some money.” He took a job with Gillette and stayed there for
16 years, using the company's tuition-reimbursement program to finish
BC and add a Suffolk Law degree at night and on weekends. “I didn't
want to waste money or time, like a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds, trying
to find yourself,” he says.

This ducks-in-a-row, make-a-plan-and-stick-with-it Republican found
the Democratic House of the early '90s a difficult place to adjust to.
“My greatest frustration was how poorly managed it was,” Sullivan
recalls. “I come from the experience of working for a company like
Gillette that had good management practices and good communication. [In
the House] I don't think there was either.” Especially galling to
Sullivan was the work of key panels, like Tommy Finneran's Ways and
Means Committee, where “you'd have these public hearings, but then the
work would all get done behind closed doors. I was frustrated with how
difficult it was to get good public policy before the full House, and
how people in many instances voted in lockstep with the leadership.”
It's an echo of Sullivan's critique of closed-door judges' conferences.

But he'd be the last man in town to see the irony in the fact that,
these days, it's Sullivan's office that has become the target of
persistent, unusually public complaints about procedural conduct. In
the infamous dentist-chair incident, U.S. District Court Judge Mark
Wolf tongue-lashed Sullivan for failing to promptly provide defense
attorneys with evidence that might help their clients' cases, as the
law requires. Wolf called it “a dismal and persistent pattern of errors
by prosecutors . . . that is wreaking havoc on my ability to administer
justice.” (Sullivan's reply had the same tone as the defiance on the
stand that got Finneran into trouble: “I continue to have serious
doubts concerning this court's authority to repeatedly order my
personal attendance.”) And after news was leaked—allegedly by
Sullivan's office—of an investigation into whether Suffolk County
Sheriff Andrea Cabral lied to a grand jury about why a jail nurse
doubling as an FBI informant on alleged inmate abuse was fired,
Cabral's lawyer wrote to Sullivan demanding that the source of the leak
be tracked down. Other Cabral allies were infuriated, including former
Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph C. Martin II, a Cabral mentor
who unsuccessfully lobbied Sullivan to drop the case; and state
Democratic Party chairman Phil Johnston, who says of Sullivan's pursuit
of Cabral and Finneran: “His political future will in part depend on
the outcome.”

Over the years, Sullivan has been touted by Republicans as a
possible candidate for U.S. Senate or state attorney general, and most
recently as a post-Romney gubernatorial prospect. “I am making no plans
to run for statewide office,” he says. “If I ever got to that point, I
would immediately resign my post as U.S. attorney.” But if even some of
the current and former law enforcement sources close to Sullivan ever
go public with what they're saying privately, talk of a political
future for the pride of Holbrook could quickly turn moot. While
uniformly describing Sullivan as affable and sincere, they echo a
criticism raised at the time of his appointments to the district
attorney and U.S. attorney jobs: that his prosecutorial credentials are
minimal, forcing him to lean heavily on his staff to make difficult
decisions about cases.

While this was a manageable problem in Plymouth County, where
Sullivan kept on staff many lawyers hired by his predecessor, there has
been less opportunity for cover at the federal level, where most of the
work is done by career prosecutors and investigators not subject to
presidential appointment. According to Sullivan's critics, some build
questionable cases without his supervision that develop a momentum he
is unequipped to stop. Says one former assistant U.S. attorney with
contemporary knowledge of Sullivan's shop: “Mike does not really
understand that the best U.S. attorneys do not let themselves become
managed.”

Sullivan refuses to discuss the Cabral and Finneran cases. As for
critics of his enforcement policies, he says curtly, “They should be
lobbying Congress to repeal the federal statutes. Don't criticize me. I
took an oath of office. I'm gonna enforce all the laws.” He says he's
“never dropped a dime” to the press and is “completely outraged” by the
leaks, but acknowledges he has also never managed to track down their
sources. And Sullivan says it's “absolute nonsense, completely untrue”
that a prosecutorial elite is pressing politicized cases forward while
he sits by. “I have a great deal of respect for a lot of the career
folks in the U.S. Attorney's Office,” Sullivan says. “I'll take
complete responsibility or blame.”

If Sullivan's right, it would be a refreshing new development in the
recent history of federal law enforcement in Massachusetts: a political
appointee who was able to completely rein in a powerful, relatively
unaccountable prosecutorial investigative force. That, along with a
conviction in the Finneran case, would be a crowning achievement in a
rags-to-riches career that could be headed for bigger things.

But what if he's wrong?

One of Sullivan's closest longtime friends, former law school
classmate and current adviser Jim McGovern, tells a story meant to
reflect his buddy's
impish sense of humor that could instead be a
cautionary tale. The two friends and their wives had taken a brisk bike
ride out to Surfside Beach on Nantucket, and on the return leg McGovern
decided to sprint ahead, getting back to their bed-and-breakfast a few
minutes ahead of the rest of the party. When he caught up, McGovern
recalls, Sullivan smiled at his friend and said, “Hey, Jim, you can go
a little faster when you don't have so much weight on your back. You
left your backpack at the beach.” McGovern adds, “He knew it all along,
but decided not to tell me.”

Funny stuff. But Sullivan could soon find his story once again
paralleling that of Finneran, whose predicament might have been avoided
if someone around him had the nerve or skill to tell him he was
overreaching. The troubling question for Mike Sullivan—genuine
principles, firm resolve, American-dream background, and all—may be:
Has he got more in common with Tommy Finneran than he'll ever admit?

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