[Update 11/28/10: In a tragic turn of events, the sheriff who was the subject of the story I wrote about below was found dead of an apparent suicide over the weekend. Read more from The Boston Globe.]

For those of you in Massachusetts, you can skip this post, because you probably know the story already. But for others, please read on to find out how a lawyer/journalist caused a public official to stop a double-dipping scheme before it even got started.

The lawyer/journalist in question is Sean P. Murphy, an investigative reporter for The Boston Globe. Thanks in part to his legal training, Sean has made it his specialty to use public records laws to uncover improprieties, sweet deals and corruption in government.

Most recently, Sean found out that James V. DiPaola, the sheriff of Middlesex County in Massachusetts, was about to take advantage of a legal loophole by which he would be able to take an annual pension of $98,500 while continuing to receive his sheriff’s salary of $123,000.

Surprisingly, the sheriff’s double-dipping scheme was perfectly legal, even if it was not in the best interests of the public. After uncovering the scheme, Sean called DiPaola and asked him about it.

At first, the sheriff’s response was to defend himself. “There is nothing evil about it. I don’t see it as grabbing something. I’m supposed to say no to it?” he said to Murphy.

To that, Sean said, “You know Sheriff if you do this it will be your legacy and not any good you have done.”

Sean’s comment resulted in a sleepless night for the sheriff. The next morning, the sheriff called Sean and said, “I think I made a mistake.” The sheriff then published an open letter to Middlesex residents, announcing he would no longer take his sheriff’s salary.

“Today,” the sheriff wrote, “I want to thank Sean Murphy of The Boston Globe for reminding me of all the reasons that I served in public service for 36 years and assisting me in making this decision.”

On this day before Thanksgiving, I am thankful for journalists and lawyers who use their training to protect the public good.

See also: A Cunning Scheme, A Spark of Conscience.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.