Law and Disorder

Tom Foley's mind was on baseball. He had just slid onto a comfortable sofa on a gracious Sunday afternoon in the resort community of Clearwater, Florida, to watch a televised Tampa Bay Devil Rays spring training game with his father at his parents' retirement home. The conditions were perfect for baseball: blue sky, temperatures in the 70s, and a steady sea breeze — the kind that makes memories of a harsh Boston winter wash away like footprints on a sandy beach along the Gulf of Mexico. It was a rare moment of peace for Foley, superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police.

Then, with the abruptness of a line drive off a pitcher's shin, the sound of Foley's beeper broke the reverie. Seeing a Massachusetts area code, he assumed the call was urgent and returned it quickly. The man on the other end of the line had a problem.

“I'm going to be in your office tomorrow at 10 a.m.,” barked the caller, who worked for Foley but was calling as a board member of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, the union that represents state troopers.

“I won't be there in the morning,” the superintendent responded, his blood pressure rising. “I'm not coming back until Wednesday.”

“Then we'll be in at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.”

“No, you won't,” snapped Foley, presumably the commander in charge of the 2,238 officers and troopers and 420 civilians of the state police. “I don't know my schedule yet.”

The conversation collapsed like a Red Sox lead in the seventh. The union official accused Foley of reneging on a promise. “You went back on your word!” he yelled. The expletives started to fly.

Foley had had enough. “This conversation is over,” he said and hung up.

Ending the call would only compound his problems. The union member, he says, spread a rumor that Foley sounded as if he had been drinking.

“I hadn't had a beer in two days,” Foley says now, still fuming. “I was watching a ball game with my 78-year-old father on a Sunday afternoon. The disrespect was out of control.”

He won't name the man on the other end of the line. But Foley says that phone call was the final affront. On May 4, he abruptly retired, along with Deputy Superintendent Bradley Hibbard, telling the newspapers the following day that he had left because his authority was being undermined by the politically connected troopers' union.

In fact, Foley's trouble with the union is only part of the story. In short, things are a mess inside the state police, even as it prepares to handle traffic, crowd control, and safety at one of the biggest security challenges in Boston history: this month's Democratic National Convention. The law enforcement agency is beset by constant bickering between commanders and the rank and file, a federal investigation into alleged larceny and obstruction of justice, and a spate of whistleblower and sexual discrimination lawsuits, among other problems.

And the timing couldn't be worse. “Instead of holding press conferences about security or crime prevention, the state police are bogged down with stories about troopers gone bad, the integrity of their systems, personnel problems, questions about discrimination, and the constant back and forth with the unions,” says Scott Lang, a former assistant Bristol County district attorney now in private practice, who has filed lawsuits on behalf of 15 state police troopers and officers — most of them women claiming sex discrimination and gender bias. Eight of the cases are pending. “It's not what the taxpayers deserve. It's a dysfunctional agency.”

Created in 1865, the Massachusetts State Police — the oldest and still one of the most respected state police departments in the country — is comprised of much more than the guys who pull you over on the highway. It has criminal investigators, a drug task force, white-collar and computer crime investigators, an underwater dive team, gang violence units, and a terrorism unit. It will team up this month with the Boston Police and federal agencies to handle security, crowd control, and traffic at the nominating convention at the FleetCenter.

Veterans say the former superintendent himself is as much to blame as the union for the turmoil in the department. It was a conflagration of egos, they say, that has been left for new Superintendent Thomas Robbins to clean up.

Tom Foley was once on the other side of the union power equation. Insiders say support from the union was the linchpin in his appointment by acting Governor Jane Swift, who was then intending to run for re-election and courting a union endorsement. (She later bowed out of the race.) At first, the union “owned Foley,” says one high-ranking official, who says supervisors were blocked from cracking down on union members. “He wanted the job so bad he sold his soul to the union,” says another former high-ranking officer. “I loved Tom Foley, but have lost respect for him. He's taken the brass ring and screwed. I thought he was my pal, and now I've lost him. I feel like a sucker.”

Foley's relationship with the union went sour over the last 12 months, he says, when he started bucking its demands. “The union has been given too much power,” another veteran officer complains. “There's a feeling there are no standards. It's like treating kids — the more you give them, the more they want. And then they throw temper tantrums.”

Foley says union leaders tried to undermine his decisions and authority by going straight to Governor Mitt Romney, who reportedly wanted the union to endorse George W. Bush and embarrass Senator John Kerry in his home state; Foley says union officials demanded that the governor fire Hibbard and told Romney that Foley planned to back Attorney General Tom Reilly against Romney in a run for governor. (Union officials deny that they tried to intervene with Romney, who they endorsed in the 2002 election, and union president John Coflesky scoffs at the idea that Foley was a target of the union.)

But this was only one of what a well-informed former state police official says were “seven hand grenades [Foley] was holding in his lap with the pins pulled.”

Among those bombs waiting to blow: The sergeant who allegedly held a no-show job for which he collected several hundred thousand dollars over six years in a case an internal affairs report alleges may have involved obstruction of justice by state police officials. Then there are the allegations about the officer who got extra pay for working nights, even though he was mostly on the day shift, and another who was given extra money for unnecessary court time. And the strange disappearance from a Holden state police barracks of more than $30,000 confiscated in a Worcester drug case. The money has never been recovered. (No trooper or officer has been charged in that theft.)

The biggest looming threat, however, stems from an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office, which was handed a satchel of internal affairs reports by the deputy commander of the state police's own Division of Standards and Training, Major John Burns, who retired in March, saying his superiors ignored his findings of wrongdoing on the part of as many as 21 officers and troopers. Sources say the U.S. attorney is looking into at least three of these cases.

“When this administration came into power, their approach was to ignore, trivialize, and minimize the actions and acts of officers in terms of violations of policy, procedure, and, as time went on, violations of the law,” Burns says. He says his investigators “were prohibited from going to the total degree of investigation we thought should be done. And that became the method of operation — the MO of the Foley command.”

Burns says he retired after a trooper in the Worcester barracks was caught billing the state for about $30,000 for court appearances he never made. Instead of being fired, the trooper was demoted and suspended for seven months. “That was the last straw,” Burns says. He says he decided “this was a travesty. I didn't want to be part of what I considered condoning wrongdoing.”

If all of these charges prove to be true, says Burns's lawyer, Joel Suttenberg, “It will clearly show that there is a lack of accountability within the Massachusetts State Police.” It's a state of affairs, he says, that is “out of control.”

Lawyers who represent many current and former state police officers say standard operating procedure called for the immediate character assassination of anyone who spoke out against the department. “There is a real gulag approach in how they handle their internal matters,” says Lang, the former Bristol assistant DA. “They have lost their [sense of] reality in how to deal with legitimate complaints, opting for the strategy that the best defense is a good offense. Once you start favoritism and someone questions it, and then you tell people to deny it or go the other way, I think you are starting to border on the Burns allegations that there was a conspiracy and an obstruction of justice.” Whether that is true or not, he says, “with the aggregate total of these different charges, how can you be effective?”

Foley takes strong exception to this. “I don't like the fact that people are saying I'm getting out because of the Burns thing,” he says. “When the truth comes out, people are going to see that it's all a bunch of bullshit. But in the meantime, people are getting trashed.”

He insists he quit entirely because of his conflict with the union, which “had gotten so personal that [Hibbard] and my effectiveness could have been an obstacle in getting the department ready for the convention.” As for the no-show sergeant — the focus of the federal investigation — Foley says, “the U.S. Attorney's Office hasn't approached me on this, and probably will be upset with me even talking about it.” But he insists that a captain in the sergeant's barracks investigated the allegation. “Internal Affairs does not do every little investigation that comes in,” says Foley. The captain found no evidence of abuse, but, according to Foley, his replacement suspected the officer wasn't showing up for work. After learning of this, Foley says he told Internal Affairs, “Okay, let's get him.” But by then, Burns had gone to the U.S. attorney.

And the officer who worked days while being paid the night-shift bonus? Foley calls it an “honest mistake” instituted by an underling because the officer in question was promoted without an increase in pay “and the guy shouldn't have had to take a pay cut.”

Foley says he doesn't know what happened to the $30,000 missing from the Holden barracks, but insists an in-house investigation found no evidence to warrant prosecution. In a scene that sounds like something from the Keystone Kops, he recounts for the first time publicly the investigation's findings. He says the officer who was called in late at night to take possession of the money had been “working a lot of hours and was tired,” Foley says. “He doesn't remember what happened. He thinks he put the money in the [barracks] safe, but can't actually say he did. He might have left it downstairs in the booking room. One of the prisoners when they were bailed might have walked out with it.” Foley also theorizes that the money might have been left on the roof of a cruiser and fell off as the cruiser drove away.

Foley wants out of the public glare. “The truth is the truth,” he says. “If people don't like it, there is not much I can do. It's not about Tom Foley anymore. I'm trying to quietly disappear.”

Tough, wily, and street smart, Tom Foley until now has never given in to defeat in his 24 years in law enforcement. Before his promotion to colonel two and a half years ago, he headed a task force that prodded some of James J. “Whitey” Bulger's fiercest henchmen — Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi, Kevin Weeks, and John Martorano — into becoming government witnesses. Their testimony resulted in the recovery of the bodies of six Bulger victims and the conviction of FBI agent John Connolly for conspiring with Bulger, who is still on the lam. “Our philosophy is simple,” Foley once said of his enemies: “Get them before they get us.”

Retired though he is, he still wants one thing: to see Bulger caught. “I hope I find him someday,” Foley says. “That would be great. But the FBI would then be accusing me — guaranteed — that I knew where he was all the time.”