Tenants of the Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) and the CHA’s “new” Board members marched hand-in-hand into Boston’s Federal Court on Friday to be heard.
But, they didn’t need to be heard.
Judge Douglas Woodlock had apparently already heard them loud and clear – so much so that, at the sentencing hearing for former CHA Director Michael McLaughlin, there was no sentencing.
Woodlock pulled a complete surprise on Friday afternoon and didn’t sentence McLaughlin at all. Instead, he made an unexpected decision to open the case back up and allow a group of all-star attorneys for the CHA and the Chelsea Citywide Tenants Association (CCTA) to argue a legal point at a new hearing in July that could significantly increase McLaughlin’s jail time, and perhaps cause him to have to pay more than $500,000 in restitution to the CHA.
“This is a serious incident and I want to work out all the facts necessary to get at an appropriate resolution,” said Woodlock during Friday’s sentencing session.
And then, “Things have to be decided and I’ve tried to do this in a way that doesn’t require an inquisitor function of the court. I think I want to get this all wrapped up, but there are still loose ends.”
What the judge essentially did was open the case up to look at new information recently disclosed by former McLaughlin friend and former CHA Accountant, James McNichols. That information that could give McLaughlin quite a bit more jail time. Judge Woodlock also opened up the possibility of restitution for the CHA and its tenants – talking at length about how to “monetize” McLaughlin’s damage to the CHA.
The newly-called hearing will take place on Wednesday, July 17th, and will include victim impact statements, discussion of the new information/charges and possible restitution payments.
Attorney Jay Rose of Greater Boston Legal Services – who helped form a grass-roots organization effort of CHA tenants this spring – said it was an outcome that was better than he could have imagined.
“The judge picked right up on this,” said Attorney Rose. “It’s mind-boggling. It’s a turn of events that’s beyond my wildest dreams. In effect, the judge is saying, Chelsea Housing Authority, please do something because the State’s Attorney – because of a Supreme Court decision – is boxed into a corner. That’s what happened today.”
“We are very happy with this,” said Gladys Vega of the Chelsea Collaborative.
McLaughlin’s attorney, Thomas Hoopes, and McLaughlin himself, declined any comment on the happenings.
No one was quite sure what would happen on Friday.
It seemed everything was up in the air, though many did agree that one thing was certain – the hearing would likely last for hours.
But in the end, it didn’t.
What was at issue on Friday was whether or not to consider an obstruction of justice charge that prosecutors first learned of in March, after the plea agreement had been signed by McLaughlin.
Essentially, McNichols and a second mystery witness – who was not identified and whom federal prosecutors declined to identify in court – had informed the government that McLaughlin had encouraged them to destroy records that could have been pertinent to the case.
That was only recently revealed publicly, and there was a lot of questions as to how Judge Woodlock would handle that – given that the information was outside of an already-existing plea agreement.
Some thought he would stick to the minimum sentence of 12 months in jail and, perhaps, consider some sort of small restitution payment.
Others thought he might give McLaughlin no jail time and give the CHA no restitution.
Virtually no one was predicting that the judge would essentially hand the case over to the CHA, the tenants and their attorneys.
“We came here today to have the residents speak and to advocate for restitution in the amount of half a million dollars, and now the case has been opened wide and we’re going to be cross-examining a witness,” said Attorney Jeffrey Sacks of Nixon Peabody.
That witness is McNichols.
McNichols has apparently been caught previously making misstatements to investigators. So, Attorney Hoopes and others have some doubts as to whether or not he will be considered credible. However, the mystery witness could make his statements much more credible – as two is always better than one.
What they say – and if the judge believes them to be credible – could spell many more years in federal prison for McLaughlin. Without opening the case up to McNichols’s testimony, McLaughlin was most likely looking at a sentence of 12 to 18 months. It wasn’t certain immediately what the new guidelines would be with the added charges, but Woodlock and Hoopes said it would be “significantly different.”
At least four CHA tenants were expected to speak at Friday’s hearing.
About 30 more tenants showed up to support them – holding signs outside the courthouse, giving statements to the press and marching in as one to the courtroom.
As those tenants and supporters spoke outside the courthouse prior to the hearing, McLaughlin arrived with his attorney in a taxi cab. They pulled out about five large file boxes from the trunk and marched silently into court.
After the proceedings were over, many of those same tenants gathered in the courthouse cafeteria for an impromptu legal update. Attorney William Codhina, who represents the CHA and who is working closely with Attorney Rose, told the tenants that the day was a success. Many, he said, felt that it would be a success if only the residents got to speak their minds in court to McLaughlin. While they didn’t get to speak, Codhina said something much better happened.
“I came here today looking for two things, and I got three,” he said. “From the point of view of the CHA and the tenants, that’s a good thing. I think you can consider this a successful day because the judge wants to hear from you and will allow a fully developed hearing to happen…The question will be was there a direct and proximate cause. Did the result of him taking the money have a direct effect on Chelsea and you and would he have envisioned that happening? We believe the answer to that is ‘yes.'”
A New Partnership Brings Heavyweight Arguments
Amidst the exciting turn of events for tenants of the CHA on Friday in Federal Court was an announcement that had been known, but not yet publicly unveiled.
That announcement was that powerful Boston law firm Nixon Peabody was joining the battle to help argue the case for the CHA and its tenants.
“We have teamed up,” said Jeffrey Sacks of Nixon Peabody. “Nixon Peabody has brought its resources to this case and looks forward to helping the CHA and its tenants. I was on the governor’s Public Housing Commission this year. I look at this as a way to continue the reform work I’ve been doing in public housing.”
Nixon Peabody is one of the heaviest hitters in the Boston law scene, and all felt that their weight certainly enhanced the ability of the tenants and CHA to get such leniency from Judge Woodlock.
“It would have been much more difficult,” said Attorney Jay Rose of Greater Boston Legal Services.
The team of Nixon Peabody and Rose and the CHA attorneys will be preparing together for the July 17th hearing.