By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Rachael Rollins, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, improperly used her U.S. Justice Department position to meddle in a local district attorney election by leaking to newspapers dirt about a political rival - one of many ethics violations cited in two reports by government investigators on Wednesday.
The reports by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz and the independent U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) were released a day after Rollins, appointed by Democratic President Joe Biden as the first Black woman to serve as U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, announced she would resign by Friday.
The scathing 161-page inspector general's report described a host of ethics lapses, from Rollins improperly attending a Democratic fundraising event with U.S. first lady Jill Biden in her capacity as a prosecutor to accusations that she "knowingly and willfully made a false statement" during her interview with Horowitz's office.
Horowitz referred the false statement allegation to the Justice Department in December for possible criminal prosecution, though the report said officials declined to do so.
The OSC report said Rollins "willfully violated" the Hatch Act - a law that limits the political activities of federal employees. It characterized the case as "one of the most egregious Hatch Act violations" OSC had ever investigated.
Rollins is a prominent figure in the "progressive prosecutor" movement that supports policies designed to eliminate racial disparities in the justice system. The investigations were launched at the urging of Republican U.S. Senator Tom Cotton.
The reports described her interactions with Ricardo Arroyo, a progressive-leaning Democrat who in 2022 ran in the party's primary election for the Suffolk County district attorney job vacated by Rollins when she became U.S. attorney. Arroyo's rival, moderate Democrat Kevin Hayden, won and now serves as the county DA.
Justice Department and OSC investigators unearthed numerous text messages showing that Rollins was working behind the scenes to help Arroyo win the election.
"No mercy. Finish him," Rollins wrote in one July 2022 text.
The investigators said Rollins planted negative information about Hayden in Boston Globe articles about his handling of a police misconduct probe and then used those stories to try to help spur a Justice Department investigation.
Rollins later leaked to the Boston Herald a sensitive Justice Department memo saying she would be recused from any Hayden-related investigation.
"By leaking non-public DOJ (Department of Justice) information for the purpose of damaging Mr. Hayden's campaign, Ms. Rollins violated the Hatch Act prohibition against using her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the results of an election," the OSC found.
When Rollins was interviewed about the leaks, the inspector general said she "lacked candor" and "falsely testified under oath" by initially denying she was the source of them.
Horowitz's report also said Rollins violated Justice Department policy and ethics rules by soliciting free Boston Celtics NBA tickets, using her personal cellphone for official business, accepting payments from outside groups to attend events and accepting political contributions to her Suffolk district attorney campaign account after becoming a U.S. attorney.
Her attorney Michael Bromwich said the inspector general's allegations "amount to minor process fouls."
"Though Ms. Rollins could have raised many facts and arguments in connection with these issues, she had no interest in litigating them any further. She believed the better course was to step down," Bromwich said in a statement.
In a letter in the OSC report, Bromwich said Rollins received Justice Department approval to attend the fundraising event.
Rollins "was there for the sole purpose of a brief meet-and-greet with the First Lady. Ms. Rollins pledged no money, encouraged no one else to pledge money or make cash contributions, stayed for no speeches, and left immediately after she shook hands with the First Lady," Bromwich wrote.
Rollins, narrowly confirmed by the Senate in December 2021, is one of the 93 U.S. attorneys appointed by the president as the lead federal prosecutors in various regions around the country.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Washington and Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham)