BOSTON — Marty Walsh appointed a new police commissioner in one of his final acts as mayor, hoping to put Boston’s political woes behind him. But the local drama followed Walsh to Washington, where that last-minute promotion has the new Labor secretary embroiled in a hometown scandal and scrambling to contain the fallout.
A leadership transition gone awry inside the Boston Police Department devolved into finger-pointing between Walsh and the city’s former police commissioner this week, and now Walsh’s biggest labor backers in Washington have gone silent.
Walsh is accused of turning a blind eye to allegations of domestic abuse against the man he appointed as police commissioner before he left for Washington. Walsh strenuously denies that accusation, but it’s given the White House one of its first brushes with scandal.
Walsh and his allies were prepared to tackle questions over former Police Commissioner Dennis White’s history at his confirmation hearing in February, two sources said. But they never came up.
The still-unfolding episode could test Walsh’s standing in the distraction-averse Biden administration, especially as Walsh is tasked with selling the White House’s massive infrastructure package.
Back home, the scandal has the Massachusetts political class divided and largely holding its breath. Even Walsh’s allies are reluctant to go on record for a story involving two radioactive topics: police accountability and domestic violence.
Walsh has been in direct contact with operatives in Boston over the past several days, who described him as calm and focused on labor issues. Those inside Massachusetts political circles say they’ve been fielding frantic calls and texts from each other at all hours of the day.
The situation is fluid, and it could be a passing wrinkle for Walsh, a Democrat who served seven years as mayor after working his way up through state politics. But a protracted dispute over what Walsh knew or didn’t know could prove to be a distraction from his duties as labor secretary — or worse.
It all began when Boston’s police commissioner at the time, William Gross, abruptly retired at the end of January, just weeks after soon-to-be-President Joe Biden announced Walsh as his pick for Labor secretary. Walsh hastily replaced Gross with White, the ex-commissioner’s deputy.
Barely two days after White was sworn in — and the night before Walsh was due in D.C. for his Senate confirmation hearing — decades-old allegations of domestic abuse, including a 1999 restraining order against White, surfaced in a Boston Globe story.
Walsh placed his brand new commissioner on leave and said the city would launch an investigation. The next day his office admitted the vetting process “should have been more thorough.” The administration vetted White by conducting a Google search and reading old press releases, according to a Boston Globe report.
But Gross swore in an affidavit this week there is “no way” Walsh didn’t know about White’s background when he was chosen as the city’s top cop.
An independent report released by the city earlier this month expanded on the allegations from 1999, with claims that White abused his then-estranged wife and told his daughter he was sleeping with a gun under his pillow. It also unearthed a second incident, this one from 1993, involving an altercation with a 19-year-old woman living in his home.
The report’s release set off a chain of events that led to Gross’ affidavit, which surfaced ahead of a court hearing Thursday in which White sought an injunction to stop the city, now helmed by acting Mayor Kim Janey, from moving ahead with firing him. Janey herself is running for a full term as mayor of Boston. A judge had not ruled on the injunction as of Friday.
Adding fuel to the fire, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said Thursday that Walsh should resign if Gross is telling the truth.
“We obviously need to know all the facts about his vetting. If it turns out Secretary Walsh is lying, he should resign as well,” Moulton told the Boston Globe on Thursday.
Others in the Massachusetts congressional delegation have been more diplomatic in their reactions.
Walsh insists he did not know about White’s internal affairs report, going back to 2014, when White was up for a command staff post. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
“As I said on February 3, I was not aware of these serious allegations until after I appointed White as police commissioner,” Walsh said in a statement to POLITICO. “Neither the allegations nor the internal affairs files were shared with me in 2014, or during any other consideration of Dennis White. Had I known, I would not have chosen him for police commissioner or any other role.”
Former Police Commissioner William Evans, who served under Walsh for four years, stepped in to corroborate the former mayor’s claim. But Ed Davis, who served as commissioner under Walsh’s predecessor, Mayor Thomas Menino, told the Globe that he would brief the mayor on command staff appointments. Davis declined further comment on Friday.
During the hearing, an outside attorney hired by the city said, “It’s not whether they know something, quote-unquote, it’s whether you remember to remember it at the right time.”
Walsh called Moulton on Thursday about the lawmaker’s attention-grabbing quote, according to four sources who declined to share the contents of the call. While Walsh told reporters Moulton misspoke, Moulton is sticking by his statement. A source familiar with Moulton’s thinking said Friday that the lawmaker was responding to a question on what should happen if Walsh is found to be lying, and that he just wants the full story like anyone else.
Moulton’s comment left some Massachusetts sources seething. They said the move was typical of the lawmaker and pushed news coverage of the controversy into another day. Moulton, who ran for president in 2020, called for the ouster of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) several years ago.
Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, a progressive prosecutor in Boston, has also waded into the controversy. Rollins told radio station GBH that Gross’ account should “trump” Walsh’s statement, a stunning comment as Rollins is being considered to serve as the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.
“Somebody signed something under the pains and penalties of perjury, for me that has to trump — I love using that word — that has to trump somebody just saying, ‘Yeah, that never happened,’” Rollins said.
Others have been more tight-lipped. National labor union presidents, once among Walsh’s most vocal advocates, have been noticeably silent on the news, declining or ignoring requests for comment Friday on what one official called a “Boston issue.”
In the days following the affidavit, Walsh went under the radar. The labor secretary canceled a media interview planned for the end of next week and skipped a trip to New Hampshire on Friday. At a virtual press briefing Thursday with congressional Democrats on child care, he logged off abruptly when House Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.) opened it up for questions.
“I have to jump off right now, but any questions directed toward the Department of Labor, we will be sure to get an answer back,” he said. “I have a meeting in about one minute.”
He also didn’t take questions during a Thursday press call with other senior Biden administration officials on climate change.
“I know he feels some regrets over just the process and would have done things different in retrospect,” a source familiar with Walsh’s thinking said. “But he’s very insistent he did not know anything about Dennis’s IA record when he appointed him.”
Unions, most of which backed Walsh for the Cabinet job, appear to be steering clear until more details emerge. Walsh, a former union president himself, has been a vocal advocate for Biden’s pro-union agenda, pushing since his confirmation hearing for top union priorities like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would make it easier for workers to form unions, and more.
Numerous unions contacted by POLITICO, including AFL-CIO, declined to comment or did not respond to a request for comment. The AFL-CIO Massachusetts chapter also declined to comment.
Back in Boston, Walsh allies say, perhaps wishfully, that the White story is not national news.
Many are furious with Gross, the former police commissioner who Walsh promoted in 2017, who they feel stabbed Walsh in the back. Gross had recommended White to replace him as commissioner.
Gross did not respond to a request for comment.
There’s also a sense of frustration among Walsh allies that the former mayor is taking the heat for White’s ascension in the Boston Police Department, although the domestic violence allegations were resolved quietly in the 1990s, when former Mayor Ray Flynn and the late Menino were in charge.
As the ripples of the controversy arrive in Washington, members of the all-Democratic Massachusetts congressional delegation, some of whom are closer to Walsh than others, are being put in an awkward position — but are toeing the line more than Moulton.
In the same Globe article, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she wants to “hear everybody’s story.” Rep. Richard Neal said Walsh “was a very fine mayor.” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who was a Boston city councilor when Walsh was mayor, stuck with an earlier statement on the need for more police accountability.
Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Walsh ally, staunchly and publicly defended his friend during an unrelated press conference in Boston on Friday.
In a subsequent interview with POLITICO, Lynch called Moulton’s comments “unfortunate” and “a bit much.”
“If there was any knowledge at all on the part of anybody in that position, he would never have gotten to the No. 2 spot,” Lynch said. “Those are pretty serious allegations that have been put out there.”
Lynch insisted the police drama is “a local issue” and that Walsh is “100% focused on his job as secretary of Labor.”
Sam Stein and Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.