A last-minute piece of evidence from former Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) Accountant James McNichols could drastically increase the sentence of former CHA Director Michael McLaughlin when he faces sentencing on Friday – but otherwise federal prosecutors are advocating for the low-end of sentencing guidelines and likely 12 months in prison.
In documents filed in Boston’s Federal Court on Monday, McLaughlin’s Attorney, Thomas Hoopes, called for a sentence of probation only, while federal prosecutors called for the necessity of some prison term.
Just how long that term might be is up to Judge Doug Woodlock.
Information provided to prosecutors after McLaughlin’s February plea agreement indicated that key witness, James McNichols, had told authorities that McLaughlin approached him in October 2012 in order to concoct a cover story that would protect both of them in any investigations.
That testimony by McNichols has led to an obstruction charge against McLaughlin that could up the sentencing guideline structure and land him in jail for longer than anyone expected. Hoopes has vigorously disputed the obstruction charge, noting that McNichols has admitted to lying to investigators on a number of occasions during the case and recanted some previous testimony. Hoopes has called for a hearing before sentencing on the matter, and has said McNichols’s allegations should not be considered.
In either case, prosecutors have said they would like to see jail time, and they have laid out sentencing guidelines for Judge Woodlock that fall between 12 and 18 months in prison. They have also indicated that McLaughlin has helped them in testimony regarding other cases – all of which is sealed.
“Pursuant to the filed plea agreement, the government recommends that the Court sentence the defendant to a term of incarceration at the low end of the Sentencing Guideline range as calculated by the Court at sentencing,” read the document signed by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. “The government also recommends that the Court impose a fine of $4,000, 24 months of supervised release, and a mandatory special assessment of $400. Whether the Sentencing Guideline range is 12 to 18 months, or higher if the Court finds there was obstructive conduct, the government believes that imprisonment at the low end of that range is warranted to reflect the defendant’s repeated flaunting of his obligations both to the federal and state agencies that funded the Chelsea Housing Authority with taxpayer money and to the tenants of public housing who lived under his management and care. By any conceivable measure, the defendant’s compensation was grossly disproportionate to any reasonable amount which the public has a right to expect to pay its employees. Sending the defendant to prison for his manipulative and deceptive conduct is necessary to promote respect for the law and deter others who may be tempted to use such means to conceal their fleecing of the public trust.”
Ortiz also indicated that she would not advocate that restitution be included as part of the sentence, disappointing many involved in a grass-roots effort of CHA tenants. The tenants’s group and the CHA had filed two weeks ago with the court to include restitution of $548,192 to the CHA for repairs to the housing authority properties. The amount represents the difference between what McLaughlin reported as his salary and the true amount he was paid over the four-year period examined in the case.
“The CHA has also moved for restitution as a victim of the offense of conviction,” wrote Ortiz. “Consistent with its obligations under the plea agreement, the government is not recommending restitution as part of the defendant’s sentence.”
McLaughlin’s attorney also submitted a lengthy document on Monday pleading with the court to go downward on the sentencing guidelines and to keep in mind all of the good that McLaughlin has done in his long political career – as detailed in numerous character reference letters. There was also a call for the judge to consider McLaughlin’s role in taking care of his wife’s chronic brain illness.
“Mr. McLaughlin has submitted substantial evidence, in the form of letters, of a life productive for society,” wrote Attorney Hoopes. “As discussed above, these letters highlight the many ways in which Mr. McLaughlin’s service to his community left the organizations that he led better for his leadership. As many of the letters recognized, Mr. McLaughlin had a reputation for taking on difficult roles – oftentimes volunteering to take over severely mismanaged organizations – and not only turning around the organization but also championing programs that benefited citizens for years to come…The defendant respectfully requests that the Court sentence the defendant to a term of probation.”
More than 30 letters of recommendation were included in the filing, mostly from family members and those who worked with him in Dracut, Somerville, Lowell and Billerica.
One man, Emile Steele – a retired Billerica Police captain – went so far as to say McLaughlin would be like the Good Samaritan.
“Michael is a person who would stop and help a poor soul who has fallen on the sidewalk after hundreds of others have passed on by,” wrote Steele.
Two letters came from Chelsea.
One came from former CHA employee Nyomi Pena who noted that McLaughlin did not think twice about providing all residents with free bed covers when there was an outbreak of bed buds in one of the CHA’s elderly building. He also ordered the entire building flushed without thinking twice, all 210 units.
The second Chelsea letter came from Buckley Tenant Council President Joe Pandolfo.
He advocated for McLaughlin’s work at CHA for implementing elder services, useable card-operated washers and dryers, monthly food banks with fresh produce, security cameras, and monthly meetings with the tenant council.
“His honest open-door policy earned him the greatest of respect,” he wrote.
All of the information in the filings will be considered at the sentencing, which will take place in Boston’s Federal Court on Friday at 2:30 p.m.