When Berkshire voters go to the polls to decide who should run the District Attorney’s Office, they’ll have a stark choice: an incumbent who has spent four years viewing herself as the county’s minister of justice as opposed to being a careful and competent chief prosecutor vs. a seasoned challenger with considerably more trial experience and a clearer understanding that the county’s top law enforcement official has responsibilities to every segment of our community. The latter is the obvious choice to bring some effective leadership to a DA’s Office that we and others have consistently noted is sorely lacking it. For that reason, The Eagle editorial board is endorsing attorney Timothy Shugrue for Berkshire district attorney.
Mr. Shugrue’s legal resume is lengthy, featuring familiarity with both sides of the courtroom — prosecution and defense. What’s more, his multifaceted background in prosecutors’ offices, private practice and co-founding the nonprofit Berkshire County Kids’ Place gives him a wide regional network of leaders in law and advocacy. Mr. Shugrue has received some weighty endorsements from people who understand the workings of the District Attorney’s office (some of which have appeared on these pages in the form of letters and op-eds), while District Attorney Andrea Harrington has boasted of being endorsed by high-profile but far-flung figures who show little or no direct knowledge of the issues emanating from the Berkshire DA’s office. More importantly, Mr. Shugrue’s extensive experience equips him for the task of building and maintaining an effective Berkshire DA’s Office capable of consistently accomplishing its crucial mission of seeking out justice on behalf of the people of Berkshire County.
A similar task fell to District Attorney Harrington when she assumed her office, because she chose to clean house of many dedicated staffers who worked for her predecessor and were deemed insufficiently loyal to the new leader. She has failed to meet this task, and we are not alone in being troubled by the resultant high staff turnover and reliance on outside prosecutors in key cases. Unfortunately, her ill-advised choice set a trend of sloppy mistakes and poor discretion.
This critique is not just ours. Consider the accounts of the DA’s job performance and leadership style from those who were once prominent supporters.
“Her office’s performance on the nuts and bolts of its prosecutions has been woeful,” wrote former federal prosecutor John Pucci, who donated to and backed District Attorney Harrington’s 2018 campaign.
“The office runs like a campaign. It is a culture of making sure that Andrea gets reelected in 2022,” said Helen Moon, who managed the 2018 campaign and then served as director of special projects in the DA’s Office until her abrupt departure in 2020.
“Leadership meetings focused as much on enemies and the press as on the difficult challenges the office faced in accomplishing its mission. ... Harrington simply does not have the necessary skills and experience for the job and she has demonstrated little, if any, interest in acquiring them,” wrote Jeanne Kempthorne, whom District Attorney Harrington hired as her chief of appeals and public records officer. Sadly, Ms. Kempthorne felt obligated to resign in early 2020 when the DA blocked the release of public records in a politically fraught case. That courageous resignation earned Ms. Kempthorne the New England First Amendment Coalition’s Orfield Citizenship Award.
These accounts from within the DA’s Office are telling, but similar signs of questionable priorities and prosecutorial dysfunction have been all too readily visible from the outside, as well. Legal organizations across the state rightly ripped District Attorney Harrington’s egregiously misguided attempt last year to oust a District Court judge over rulings she didn’t like. Earlier this year, a Superior Court judge dismissed the indictment of an Adams foster couple on negligent manslaughter charges in the death of an infant in their care, issuing a rare rebuke of the DA’s handling of the case as “not the standard of conduct the court expects from the Commonwealth in grand jury proceedings.”
District Attorney Harrington dismisses substantive criticism out of hand as simply slings and arrows aimed at a reform agent. Claiming the title of reformer to deflect real concerns about the performance of an office with a monopoly on prosecuting public justice gives a bad name to the important work of implementing sensible criminal justice reform. Worse, it undermines reform by associating it with the sloppy and unethical behavior.
Yet ignoring all the evidence cited above, District Attorney Harrington told The Eagle editorial board that “based on any metric, my office has excelled.” Curiously, though, the district attorney declined to answer questions about individual cases that her office has prosecuted, including ones that are concluded. If the DA’s Office is excelling at its primary duty, why refuse to talk about it in detail on the record? And what does that say about the DA’s pronounced commitment to transparency?
Mr. Shugrue, for his part, seems to recognize the need for more transparency and, above all, competence from the county’s top prosecutor. He said he would resume public releases detailing all Superior Court rulings — a regular practice during previous administrations that District Attorney Harrington ceased. If elected, we’ll hold him to that. Beyond such relatively simple measures to upgrade the office’s transparency and competency, Mr. Shugrue also recognizes the nitty-gritty work and complex realities behind the news conferences and press releases that a quality DA’s Office must confront. That means actually using the great discretion granted to district attorneys to actively balance justice and compassion, not just dismiss certain low-level offenses to match a sloganeering blanket policy. And it means putting together, training and leading a roster of assistant DAs, victim advocates and other staff that can inspire the sort of trust in the county’s top law enforcement office that has been eroded among some in the Berkshire community.
Mr. Shugrue is ready, willing and qualified for that job. He is considerably more qualified and experienced in the courtroom than the incumbent DA was when she first ran or, for that matter, than she is now after one term. Courtroom experience is essential to the task of evaluating cases and training younger assistants, and Mr. Shugrue promises to build the “best law office in Berkshire County” to serve the entire community.
Given District Attorney Harrington’s widely recognized poor performance, we enthusiastically support Timothy Shugrue for Berkshire district attorney.