Michael E. McLaughlin sentenced to 3 years; judge says he ‘picked the pockets’ of housing authority residents in Chelsea

US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock today sentenced Michael E. McLaughlin to three years in federal prison, saying the former executive director of the Chelsea Housing Authority committed “very serious crimes’’ when he selfishly “picked the pockets” of housing authority residents.

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Before being sentenced, McLaughlin told the judge that he “truly regretted’’ filing false reports, actions he blamed on “my stubbornness and ego.’’

“That was my fault for that, and I truly regret it,’’ McLaughlin said in US District Court in Boston. “It was more than a misjudgment, and I am sorry for my family, friends and colleagues.’’

He credited himself with giving new life to a troubled housing authority. But he acknowledged any good work he did was forever tarnished.

McLaughlin, 67, had pleaded guilty to four felonies in deliberately underreporting his burgeoning income to regulators in four years.

Speaking from the bench, Woodlock explained why he rejected both the recommendation of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office that McLaughlin spend 18 months in prison, and the request by defense attorney Thomas Hoopes that McLaughlin be freed on supervised release.

“Acting through self-interest, Mr. McLaughlin committed very serious crimes,’’ the judge said. “He picked the pockets of the people of the Chelsea Housing Authority.’’

McLaughlin’s lawyer had argued that he should not go to prison, saying he had no criminal record and was “irreplaceable” in the care of his bedridden wife, who has Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and cannot be left alone.

In recommending prison time, however, Ortiz’s office had pointed out that McLaughlin traveled extensively, often with his close friend Linda Thibodeau, during his tenure as Chelsea housing director, leaving his wife in Massachusetts.

The Globe reported today that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is challenging the legitimacy of about $175,000 in expenditures McLaughlin and Thibodeau racked up between 2005 and November 2011, when McLaughlin was forced to resign after the size of his $360,000 annual salary was disclosed.

During a sentencing hearing, former McLaughlin ally James McNichols admitted under oath that that he repeatedly covered up and lied for McLaughlin out of blind loyalty to the man he once considered to be like a second father to him.

McNichols testified that when they both learned in November 2011 that an investigation into McLaughlin’s leadership at the authority had been launched, the two men exchanged solemn pledges.

“He said he would never roll on me and I said I swore on my father’s grave that I would never roll on him,” McNichols testified.

McNichols and McLaughlin, sitting less than 10 feet apart during the testimony, avoided eye contact.

After McLaughlin agreed to plead guilty without telling McNichols, the former senior accountant concluded he had been deceived and his relationship with McLaughlin was a case of “misplaced loyalty.”

McNichols also testified he was afraid of McLaughlin.

“Mike wasn’t a guy to say no to,” he testified. “I didn’t want to make him angry.”

He testified that during his tenure at the authority, McLaughlin preached a philosophy of “you don’t trust anyone who is not one of us.”

Woodlock also heard from Francis Stewart, who testified that he was called in 2009 by McLaughlin to make a donation to then-Lieutenant Governor Murray, a request that Stewart complied with. Stewart said McLaughlin called him two years later and urged him to lie about who asked for the donations if he was ever questioned by investigators.

Stewart quoted McLaughlin as telling him to say, “It didn’t come from me [McLaughlin], it came from Walter Underhill.’’

Underhill, a former authority lawyer, was deceased by the time of the conversation between Stewart and McLaughlin.

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