The letter from the local district attorney would make anyone shudder.
It says “Official Notice — Immediate Attention Required” and comes on what appears to be official stationery, with the signature and seal of the district attorney. The sternly worded four-page letter accuses the recipient of passing a bad check in violation of Massachusetts criminal law.
“A conviction for a bad check of $250 or more is classified as Larceny with a potential jail sentence ranging up to five (5) years,” the letter warns.
Not only is the recipient told that he has to make good on the check in order to avoid a criminal record, he also needs to fork over anywhere from $120 to $235 to take a class on “financial accountability,” along with a $25 return-check fee.
What the recipient may not realize is that the letter was not sent by a district attorney, but by a private, unlicensed debt-collection company under contract with the district attorney. That fact is either not mentioned at all or only inconspicuously disclosed.
Until recently, six of Massachusetts’ district attorneys — including Suffolk County’s Daniel Conley, a Boston mayoral candidate — were engaged in such contracts, allowing the companies to use official-looking letterhead as part of a venture that critics say blurs the lines between government and private interests.
Last week, six months after the Globe began asking questions about the programs, which are not specifically authorized under state law, the district attorneys revealed that they had terminated or suspended their contracts with the companies over the course of the last two months.
The district attorneys reiterated their belief that the programs were a legal and effective way to handle bad-check cases, but said they would seek legislation to explicitly authorize their use.
Conley, as well as the district attorneys of Middlesex, Norfolk, and the Cape and Islands, used Corrective Solutions, a company that encountered class-action lawsuits for similar programs in other states. The Northwestern and Bristol district attorneys used BounceBack, a smaller company that employs many of the same practices.
A four-month Globe investigation into the relationship between the district attorneys and these collection companies, and the debt-collection practices in which they engage, found that:
■ The two companies are not licensed to operate in Massachusetts – a standard requirement for debt-collection companies.
■ They engage in collection practices that many argue could run afoul of state and federal debt-collection laws, including the questionable use of the official-looking stationery and the use of envelopes that make it clear that the letter pertains to debt collection.
■ Most of the district attorneys appear to have delegated their “prosecutorial discretion” — the decision on which cases to pursue — to the private debt-collection companies.
After months of the individual district attorneys vigorously defending their bad-check programs to the Globe, the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association issued a statement last Thursday on behalf of the four district attorneys doing business with Corrective Solutions, saying they were terminating the programs with the companies out of “an abundance of caution.”
Last week, the Northwestern district attorney’s office told the Globe that it has ended its agreement with BounceBack, while Bristol County said it has “suspended” its program with the company.
“I inherited this program from the previous DA,” said David Sullivan, chief prosecutor in the Northwestern District. “When I took a look at the letter that goes out, I didn’t feel it was appropriate because it was giving the erroneous impression that it was being sent by me, as opposed to BounceBack. So I pulled the plug.” Sullivan said even if the authorizing legislation passes, he will not reinstitute the program.
The district attorneys association declined repeated requests for a copy of the legislation they are seeking.
“It looks like the DAs are looking to conform the law to their questionable practices, rather than conform their practices to the law,” said Edgar Dworsky, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general in consumer protection and founder of consumerworld.org. “The last thing these law enforcement agencies should be doing is lobbying the Legislature to make their programs exempt from the debt-collection rules that everyone else has to follow.”
To the district attorneys, the bad-check programs appeared to be a relatively painless and inexpensive way to dispense with low-priority cases, while helping businesses get the money they are owed.Continued...