There was nothing more appropriate to the situation than former Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) Executive Director Michael McLaughlin walking defeatedly – in total eerie silence – across Boston’s rusty, broken and unused Northern Avenue Bridge as he left the Federal Courthouse some 20 minutes after pleading guilty to his charges on Tuesday morning.
The old bridge was once a major artery into the downtown, an important, well-kept conduit for thousands to use. However, its usefulness has long since passed, and it is now only a vestige for pedestrians to walk over.
McLaughlin, 67, of Dracut, appeared much the same way. Slumping, he walked slowly with his attorney, Thomas Hoopes, and mostly looked down as media members swarmed to catch up to him – as he had tried to slip out the back door unnoticed. He was only a shadow of the man that two years ago ran a financially-lucrative, politically-connected fiefdom at the CHA; a power player who allegedly and infamously brought votes, money and back door dealings to those on the inside of state politics.
He no longer appeared to be that self-described “rebel” with strong opinions and high-end political clout – an important artery into state politics.
He was, quite simply, a man caught.
Some 20 minutes before that surprise, silent walk across the bridge, McLaughlin stood up in open court and admitted to padding his salary past recommended levels, trying to conceal the activity and purposely filing erroneous yearly budget reports to state housing officials. Prosecutors said that state and federal housing officials would testify that – had they known – they would have investigated and tried to prevent McLaughlin’s mushrooming salary – which grew to more than $360,000 by 2011.
After Federal Prosecutor Ted Merritt detailed the four charges before the court, Judge Doug Woodlock asked a simple question that ended part of the two-year-long ordeal at the CHA.
“Mr. McLaughlin, you’ve heard the evidence, do you disagree? Is that what happened?” said the judge.
“Yes your honor,” McLaughlin replied.
And then from the court clerk, “What do you plea sir, guilty or not guilty?”
“Guilty, sir,” McLaughlin said.
While the guilty plea is a significant step in the case against McLaughlin, it might not turn out so bad for him once sentencing comes around on May 14th at 2 p.m. – as the more he talks, the better his outcome will be.
As part of the guilty plea, McLaughlin signed a plea agreement with the feds that gives him significant incentives to testify and provide information on any further investigation into the spire of activities that surrounded McLaughlin. Many believe the further investigation revolves around Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, a long-time friend and close political ally of McLaughlin. However, that was not detailed in the plea agreement, which was signed on Feb. 4th, and the agreement was rather vague as to what exact information McLaughlin might provide to earn a lighter sentence.
What is clear is that – depending on his level of assistance in any other case – McLaughlin gets off lighter and lighter the more he talks.
For normal assistance in upcoming cases or investigations, the U.S. Attorney has suggested that he be incarcerated on the low end of the sentencing guidelines. For his offenses, he can get a maximum of 20 years, but that’s highly unlikely. The recommendation seems to suggest around 12 to 18 months in prison for nominal cooperation – in addition to a $4,000 fine and two years of probation.
“Based on defendant’s prompt acceptance of personal responsibility for the offenses of conviction in this case, and information known to the U.S. Attorney at this time, the U.S. Attorney agrees to recommend that the Court reduce by three levels the defendant’s adjusted offense level,” read the agreement.
McLaughlin’s cooperation includes working with law enforcement agents and government attorneys – providing “complete and truthful information to all law enforcement personnel.” He also must testify if requested to do so at any grand jury, hearing or trial. When testifying, he cannot withhold any information, and he also must provide the feds with any information or documents in his possession.
But there are even further incentives in the agreement, incentives that could potentially keep McLaughlin out of jail completely.
The plea agreement contains a section where McLaughlin could be rewarded at the May sentencing for providing “substantial assistance” – as determined by the federal prosecutors.
“In the event that defendant provides substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed a criminal offense, the U.S. Attorney agrees that, at or before the time of sentencing, the U.S. Attorney will file a motion…to recommend that the Court impose a sentence below the advisory Sentencing Guideline range,” read the agreement.
At sentencing on May 14th, the U.S. Attorney will inform the court if McLaughlin has provided “substantial assistance” and that will likely affect his sentence in a significant way – taking him down to less than one year in jail or, perhaps, no jail at all.
McLaughlin was also given immunity from prosecution for any related crimes he committed that might be revealed within his cooperation with the feds.
It was also repeated time and again that the agreement could be pulled at any time for a variety of reasons.
The 45-minute hearing on Tuesday morning ended quietly, and McLaughlin was released on a personal recognizance bail. One thing was loud and clear, though, is the conviction of McLaughlin was hardly the end of the entire affair – and if the U.S. Attorney’s Office has its way – there will eventually be much bigger headlines than those detailing the breaking of Michael McLaughlin.