Maximum Mike Goes to Washington

Look out, DC! After six years at the helm of the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office, Michael Sullivan is taking his show on the road, and leaving behind a mess.


Talk about your double dippers.

For the past year, Michael Sullivan, our ambitious U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, has been moonlighting as the acting director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Common sense suggests that each of those critical jobs requires the round-the-clock dedication of a top professional, but never mind: As of mid-October, Sullivan is now in line to take the reins at the ATF full time. Nothing was official as of this writing, but he’s expected to skate. At his confirmation hearings, Senator John Kerry said Sullivan had “proven more than qualified and capable,” and Senator Ted Kennedy lauded his “distinguished career in public service.”

While Sullivan has amassed a solid record on civil cases, particularly against healthcare companies like Boston Scientific (a $7 million fine for anticompetitive practices), you have to wonder whether those two liberal lions—well, one liberal lion and one liberal limpet—were thinking. Because as Sullivan prepares to decamp for DC, taking with him his carefully cultivated reputation for relentlessly cracking down on street crime, he leaves in his wake a basket case of a U.S. Attorney’s Office. Judges are complaining of sloppy briefs and missed deadlines in Sullivan’s shop. Cases are taking longer to resolve than in any other state in the country. And bungling management and sometimes shocking instances of patronage have sunk morale. An estimated dozen assistant U.S. attorneys—the career professionals who do the important legal work—left the office during a recent 12-month stretch.

Given that track record, it’s fitting that Sullivan feels such warmth for Alberto Gonzales, his old boss at the ATF and U.S. Attorney’s Office, whose going-away party he marked with this dewy-eyed toast: “When I think of the attorney general, three words come to mind: discipline, duty, and honor.” That Sullivan was able to perform that boot shine without swallowing his teeth is troubling enough to those of us still residing in the reality-based community; that he’s now being called up to the big leagues is, frankly, freaking out a number of his former minions. “If anything ever happens that requires leadership at the ATF and Mike Sullivan is at the helm,” says one, “it’s going to be a sad day.”


Sullivan has always been known as a comer. Born into a big, working-class Irish-Catholic family in Holbrook, he started out at Gillette as a stock clerk, and worked his way up the corporate hierarchy for 16 years, earning degrees from BC and Suffolk Law. He ran for state rep in 1990 and served five years on Beacon Hill before being appointed DA for Plymouth County, where he first honed the kind of no-mercy style—refusing plea bargains, seeking the maximum punishment for nearly every offense—that is catnip for Republican voters who don’t know the difference between being tough on criminals and being tough on crime. Along the way, Sullivan picked up the nickname “Maximum Mike.” He’s a churchgoing, Mark Twain–reading family man often described as “good to have a beer with.” And that’s helped his steady rise, since voters will happily stomach all manner of poor judgment and bad policy when a fella is thought of as “good to have a beer with.” In 2001, taking what by then seemed the inevitable next step up the ladder, Sullivan was appointed U.S. attorney by newly elected President Bush.

A big complaint that critics have about Sullivan’s tenure as U.S. attorney centers on a couple of dubious patronage hires he’s made out of Plymouth County, which have fostered the perception that Sullivan has used his old stomping grounds as an Arabian Horse Association for the office. “He’s done a lot of harm in his hiring decisions,” says a former staffer. The most oft-cited example is Kenneth Shine. A criminal-defense lawyer from Plymouth County with no prosecutorial experience, Shine arrived at the office this spring, brought in by Sullivan after a debilitating hiring freeze brought on by federal budget constraints. Besides Shine’s relative obscurity at the time—“I’d never heard of him,” says a source close to the office, “and I kind of know everyone in the criminal-defense bar in Massachusetts”—several people believe he was not put through the normal rigorous hiring process. Sullivan insists Shine was hired properly, adding, “I would suggest that Shine has tried more cases than most people that we hire out of the District Attorney’s Office.” But suffice it to say that after the crippling attrition, Shine was hardly the cavalry everyone had been hoping for.

So, why Shine? One reason might be that, according to the Dukes County Registry of Deeds, Shine co-owns a vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard with Sullivan. It’s further worth noting that the other part-owner of that property is Sullivan’s longtime friend District Court Judge James McGovern, also of Plymouth County. If that name rings a bell, it’s because early in Sullivan’s tenure, he created an assistant U.S. attorney/senior policy adviser job for McGovern, who worked at the office from 2002 to 2006 before returning to the bench.

Around the office, the Maison de Patronage is a rather bitterly held open secret; many staffers asked me some variation of “Did anybody tell you about the house?” At the same time, several people I spoke with stressed that some of Sullivan’s Plymouth County hires have turned out well. But that just underscores the problem with clumsy patronage: You bring in certain people because of their connections, and it taints those who made it on their own merits.


The joke about Sullivan hiring anyone as a policy adviser is that Sullivan’s policy has been fixed since he first started out as a DA: Go for the maximum charge for just about every offender. Sullivan refuses to cut plea deals (though Tom Finneran managed to get one), instead demanding that his prosecutors pile charges on a defendant, often using previous convictions at the state level to trigger higher mandatory-minimum sentences and boost the severity of the federal charges.

This approach has created friction between Sullivan’s office and federal judges, who find his philosophy mindless and demeaning not just to defendants but also to attorneys, judges, and Lady Justice herself. In 2004, two federal judges offered rare public rebukes of Sullivan’s tactics. U.S. District Court Judge Mark Wolf castigated Sullivan for tying up the courts with penny-ante street-crime cases, and U.S. District Court Judge William Young hammered Sullivan’s office for evincing “a moral code more suited to the alleys of Baghdad than the streets of Boston” and adopting a mindset that “reveals such callous indifference to innocent human life as would gag any fair-minded observer.”

Sullivan has often said he doesn’t care if he annoys judges; by his reckoning, the more cases you’ve gotten to trial, the more successful you’ve been, so he’s just kept on pushing more through each year, in the process racking up some of the longest average sentences of any U.S. attorney in the country. But beyond drawing the ire of jurists, Sullivan’s methods have also insulted his own staff. U.S. attorneys working a case typically arrive at a plea deal they feel adequately punishes the defendant while at the same time avoiding a lengthy, costly trial. They then bring the proposed deal to a supervisor for approval, and it continues up the chain from there. Sour
ces say that previous U.S. attorneys, from Bill Weld to Donald K. Stern, took the position that their employees had some idea of what they were doing. Under Sullivan it’s been different. Prosecutors have labored to find what they feel is an appropriate resolution to a case, only to see their agreement rejected out of hand by the boss months later, with an admonishment to go back and seek the maximum charge. Former staffers say the practice has had a disastrous effect on morale, leaving the rank and file to feel they’re merely cogs in Sullivan’s machine.

And when those cogs squeak, sources say, they sometimes find themselves removed from the picture. Sullivan frequently butted heads with James Farmer, the office’s highly respected former head of criminal prosecutions, who disagreed with Sullivan’s approach. So Sullivan transferred him to the anti-terrorism unit. Then he broke from the organizational structure typically used in U.S. attorney’s offices and split his criminal unit into two separate divisions. Sullivan says he moved Farmer not because they disagreed but because battling terrorism is “the most important part of our practice and business.” Far from stifling dissent, he says, “I welcome people’s strong oppositions.” So why do many of his charges say that’s not true? Sullivan says they might just be pining for the old days, when “they might have had a lot more of what they thought was independence.”


But so what? Why not punish criminals to the full extent of the law? Who cares if it hurts some feelings around the office? Here’s where the trouble lies: Whopping sentences may be the stuff of stirring campaign rhetoric (I’m tough on crime! Look at my average sentence length!), but the fact is, they actually create more problems than they solve. Despite the throngs of street criminals shipped to the federal pen since Sullivan took office, violence continues unimpeded in urban Massachusetts. Worse, by disregarding individual circumstances and essentially sentencing crimes and not people, he’s alienated the mostly black and brown communities upon whose cooperation much of law enforcement relies. Stern, the former U.S. attorney, also federalized certain street crimes while serving under President Clinton—but he did so strategically. In one case, he put away for 20 years the gangster Freddie Cardoza, who used to taunt cops by flipping a single bullet like a coin. The sentence struck some as draconian, but it scared the hell out of local gang members, and Stern balanced it by working closely with the community to make sure they felt sufficiently invested in the legal process. The latter was a key component of Operation Ceasefire, the innovative program credited with dramatically reducing Boston’s murder rate in the 1990s.

Under Sullivan, however, these same communities have just seen kids being packed away to distant prisons for ever longer sentences, with scant effort made to explain why certain cases are moved from the state to the federal system. Factor in the baldly racist federal sentencing guidelines that punish crack cocaine far more severely than powder coke, as well as the lack of any appreciable drop in local violence, and you can see why some residents think they’re getting railroaded. The result is the “sort of cultural distance that you see captured in the Stop Snitchin’ stuff,” says John Klofas, a criminologist at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology.

It goes without saying that Sullivan is carrying out—to the letter—the very policies the Bush administration expected of him. This bunch does, after all, excel in the manufacture of new and exciting forms of good-sounding imbecilities that cost huge amounts of money and end up exacerbating the ills they were intended to solve. But while it’s tempting to assume that he was just following the boss’s orders, let’s not forget that Sullivan’s been doing it this way since he was DA, which would seem to place him in the uniquely terrifying category of politicians who embrace bad policies not for political gain, but because they actually believe in them. Considering that Sullivan’s next stop, the ATF, finds itself at the center of a roiling controversy surrounding the White House’s policy of doing nothing to stop the flow of illegal guns into inner cities—and then screwing inner-city residents to the wall for using them—his impending appointment is unsettling, to say the least.

When you add it all up—the unstinting loyalty to an inept boss, the resolve for the sake of resolve, the apparent selective attachment to reality—it becomes obvious that far from being unqualified, Sullivan is, by the standards of the Bush White House, the perfect candidate for promotion. To that end, allow me to join our two fine senators in singing the praises of our new ATF director: Heck of a job, Sully.