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Political Patronage Scandal Rocks Massachusetts Probation Department

A May 2010 investigative report in the Boston Globe took the Massachusetts Probation Department to task for bypassing qualified candidates for available job positions, instead employing at least 250 friends, relatives and financial backers of politicians and top court officials. According to the Globe, “[r]eports of irregularities in the [hiring] process are legion ... the children of influential people who got jobs even though they didn’t make the list of finalists, friends and allies hired on an ‘acting’ basis without a formal hiring process, [and] job applicants with no political ties who find their interview evaluations inexplicably changed to reduce their overall ranking.”

Singled out for specific criticism was Probation Commissioner John J. “Jack” O’Brien, who was selected for his position in 1997 by Chief Judge John J. Irwin, Jr. instead of highly-regarded probation expert Ronald P. Corbett, Jr. Judge Irwin, now deceased, had indicated that he wanted a streetwise commissioner and selected O’Brien, who was then in charge of a program where probationers could go for drug testing and educational services. Shortly after O’Brien took office, he hired two of Irwin’s relatives.

Passed over for promotion once O’Brien became commissioner was Deirdre I. Kennedy, a Wellesley College graduate with two master’s degrees, and a streetwise veteran who was fluent in Spanish. She had run an anti-domestic violence program that had qualified for millions in federal grants. Instead, O’Brien chose 73-year-old James Rush, the father of an influential state legislator.

Rush’s two-year stint in the Probation Department resulted in a sex and race discrimination lawsuit filed by two of his female subordinates. With yet another chance to hire Kennedy, O’Brien again chose another candidate – one with close connections to State Treasurer Tim P. Cahill. Cahill, an O’Brien political ally, employs O’Brien’s wife, Laurie, and one of his daughters. O’Brien built strong ties to state lawmakers and top court officials, which helped him obtain increases in hiring and funding during a time when the state legislature was trying to rein in a budget deficit.

Included on O’Brien’s staff are family members of U.S. Representative William D. Delahunt, former Boston mayor Raymond L. Flynn and former Massachusetts Senate President William M. Burger, as well as House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s godson. None of those individuals claim a background in probation expertise. O’Brien’s daughter, Genevieve, is also on the agency’s payroll.

State Rep. Thomas M. Petrolati, an influential lawmaker, has secured jobs in the Probation Department for his wife, Kathleen, a former staffer, the husband of his legislative aide and dozens of his campaign contributors. According to the Globe, Petrolati, who appears to have considerable influence in the budgetary process that provides funding for the Probation Department, has received double the amount of campaign contributions from probation employees than any other state legislator, based on campaign records.

With the help of Petrolati and others, the Probation Department’s budget has grown more than 160 percent from 1998 to 2008, far outstripping increases in other public safety agency funding. Seventy-nine probation managers are paid at least $100,000 annually, and from 2004 to 2010, O’Brien’s salary rose from $116,241 to $130,305. The budgetary increases for the Probation Department have come in the wake of a 10 percent drop in the number of offenders who require hands-on supervision.

The Probation Department supervises thousands of people convicted of DUI, sex offenses and other serious crimes serving their sentences in the community, and the agency’s hiring practices appear to have adversely affected the morale of employees in the department who lack the political influence possessed by many of O’Brien’s hires.

The Globe, following an extensive six-month investigation, uncovered what it believed to be practices in the Probation Department that do not contribute to the efficient operation of the agency. Under O’Brien, employee donations to legislative campaigns increased from $23,413 in 2002 to more than $55,000 in 2008. Staff members who declined to make political donations risked being passed over for promotions in favor of less experienced but politically-connected employees.

One such candidate passed over for promotion was Karen Jackson, who was seeking the position of assistant chief probation officer after being selected as the top candidate by the hiring committee at Milford District Court. Instead, O’Brien picked the grandniece of then-State Rep. Marie J. Parente.

The apparent politicization of the Probation Department’s staff has left the collection of fines and court costs overseen by probation officials, to the tune of $70 million a year, vulnerable to theft, according to the Globe. Six probation officers have been cited for multiple deficiencies in their collection, management and disbursement of funds. One employee was charged with the alleged theft of $2 million from the Lawrence District Court probation department accounts. That employee was supervised by Jeffrey L. Akers, who was cited by State Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci in a 2007 report for failing to notice financial discrepancies.

The chief administrator of Massachusetts’ trial courts, Chief Justice Robert A. Mulligan, said that such losses were not unexpected. “There was absolutely no oversight,” he noted.

Other Probation Department employees with apparent competency issues have escaped punishment. One associate probation officer, Ashley Losapio, the stepdaughter of a judge, was alleged to have compromised an investigation by leaking information. The Worcester district attorney declined to prosecute, but then-Detective Captain Edward J. McGinn, Jr. complained to O’Brien that Losapio was “not a suitable person to serve this community as a probation officer.” She was transferred to another position but continued to work for O’Brien, and received a $3,000 pay increase.

O’Brien was able to continue such politicized hiring practices because with the exception of the legislature, there was little other recourse. Although Chief Justice Mulligan was technically his boss, O’Brien, as commissioner, had “exclusive authority to appoint, dismiss, assign, and discipline probation officers.”

In the past, Mulligan attempted to rein in what he felt were hiring abuses, with limited success. According to the Globe, state Rep. Michael F. Rush – the son of former probation official James Rush, who resigned under pressure – pushed a proposal to move Mulligan’s downtown administrative offices to the top floor of the outlying Charlestown District Courthouse, ostensibly to save money. Or possibly to send a message.

Governor Deval Patrick vetoed $4.4 million in probation spending in November 2009, but the entire sum was restored by the legislature with little or no floor debate. That was not surprising given O’Brien’s skillful manipulation of the hiring process, which concentrated on friends and relatives of state lawmakers. After O’Brien’s appointment, those same legislators eliminated the previous practice of requiring probation officers assigned to the courts to be approved by local judges; as a result, hiring and promotion decisions were made by O’Brien’s office.

That change, pushed by former state Rep. Thomas M. Finneran, permitted politicians seeking hiring favors to deal directly with O’Brien instead of less politically-responsive judges. Since then it has become clear to individuals both inside and outside the Probation Department that well-placed campaign contributions to state legislators are looked upon favorably when the time comes to seek funding for the agency. Finneran, O’Brien’s former neighbor and jogging partner, resigned in 2004 after being accused of perjury in an unrelated case. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 2007, was fined $25,000, and was disbarred in January 2010.

After a spotlight was placed on O’Brien and the Probation Department by the Globe’s reporting, state lawmakers finally took action. “The probation department has become a rogue agency with a complete lack of transparency and oversight,” Governor Patrick said in a statement. O’Brien was suspended in May 2010, and special counsel Paul F. Ware, Jr. was appointed to investigate political favoritism among hires in the Probation Department.
Following an extensive investigation that included interviews with almost 100 witnesses, Ware issued a 307-page report in November 2010 that found “abuse and systemic corruption” in the Probation Department during O’Brien’s tenure. “The fraud begins at the top with Commissioner O’Brien, and it extends through most of the hierarchy of the department who participate in interviewing candidates for hiring and promotion,” the report stated.

Ware wrote that O’Brien had “committed pervasive fraud against the Commonwealth” by rigging the hiring process to select certain candidates with the goal of securing political favors. “Such abuse and corruption are intolerable and are a betrayal of the just expectations of the public and of employees in the judicial branch, including those in the Probation Department,” the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court stated.

The report cited numerous examples of O’Brien’s corrupt hiring decisions, including one case in which he hired Douglas MacLean, the son of former state Senator William “Biff” MacLean, despite the fact that he had a felony conviction and was a former heroin addict. A probation supervisor who objected to hiring MacLean was punished by O’Brien, who transferred her to a distant work location.

According to Ware, probation deputies Christopher J. Bulger, Elizabeth V. Tavares and Francis M. Wall, plus former deputies William H. Burke III and Patricia Walsh, may have committed criminal offenses that included fraud, bribery and illegal solicitation of campaign contributions.

“Generous appropriations for the Probation Department were linked to O’Brien’s willingness to systematize fraudulent hiring and promotion on a pervasive scale,” Ware wrote. He noted that state lawmakers – many of whom received campaign donations or desired hiring decisions from the Probation Department, approved $25.4 million more than the budget requested for the agency between 2006 and 2009.

As for the attorneys who were supposed to oversee the agency, Ware found they were either “unaware of massive fraud” or were “aware of the fraud but acquiesced in it.” Thus, they were either “incompetent or dishonest.” Further, the Probation Department’s legal counsel, Christopher J. Bulger, son of former state Senator William Bulger, had “irrevocably compromised” his credibility by speaking with and advising O’Brien after O’Brien had been suspended.

Based upon Ware’s findings, the Supreme Judicial Court announced that it would fire O’Brien, suspend several of his deputies, and forward the special counsel’s report to state and federal prosecutors to determine if criminal charges were warranted.

The Supreme Judicial Court also ordered the formation of a task force, chaired by former State Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger, to review hiring and promotion practices in the Probation Department. However, that review, and the investigation by Ware, only concern improprieties involving the Probation Department. Not addressed are possible misdeeds by state lawmakers, who arguably were just as complicit as O’Brien in seeking to have their family members and friends hired by the Probation Department, and for granting political favors in exchange for campaign contributions.

The Massachusetts legislature announced in December 2010 that it was taking action, too – not to investigate wrongdoing by its members, but to form a commission to draft legislation to overhaul the Probation Department. The proposed bill may include placing the agency’s hiring process under the civil service system, to ensure that hiring decisions are based on merit rather than political patronage.

O’Brien abruptly quit on December 31, 2010, complaining that he was being made a scapegoat. State and federal criminal investigations into the Probation Department scandal are reportedly pending.


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