Globe Editorial

In shocking Probation scandal, the disgrace is widespread

November 20, 2010

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THE MOST troubling revelation of the independent counsel’s report on the state Probation Department wasn’t the vastness of the patronage empire created by now-suspended Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and fed by dozens of legislators. It was the fact that this utterly corrupt, totally immoral job bazaar seems to have been an open secret on Beacon Hill, where legislators either participated or held their tongues. The disgrace runs deep.

Every legislator who had reason to know of this operation — and especially the current leaders — should vow to clean up any other patronage dens in dusty corners of state government. Those same leaders should explain what they knew about O’Brien’s operation. Meanwhile, the many people named in independent counsel Paul Ware’s voluminous report should be investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted.

O’Brien should be fired immediately. So should the high-level staffers who communicated his orders to department employees who sat on interview panels. And so should the department’s legal counsel, Christopher Bulger, who, according to Ware, took the suspended commissioner’s side during Ware’s investigation.

Meanwhile, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz should investigate O’Brien for violations of corruption laws. But the criminal inquiry shouldn’t end with O’Brien and his aides. At least two well-known Beacon Hill figures — House Speaker pro tempore Thomas Petrolati and former speaker Tom Finneran — refused to testify, and Ortiz and state Attorney General Martha Coakley should assess whether the many legislators who got O’Brien to hire their job candidates broke state or federal laws.

Ware’s investigation, which was ordered by the Supreme Judicial Court in May, after the Globe Spotlight Team documented a pattern of patronage hiring at the department and suspicious campaign contributions by its employees, showed that the department’s interview process was a sham. Candidates for jobs typically were interviewed by panels of two probation officials and a judge. According to Ware, O’Brien’s aides had lists of job candidates recommended by powerful legislators (and occasionally judges) and instructed probation officials to give these candidates interview scores high enough to make them finalists; never mind whether they were qualified or not. Judges had just enough involvement to give the process a patina of legitimacy. But if the judge on a panel gave a low score to one of O’Brien’s favored candidates, probation employees would inflate their scores to compensate.

The stated purpose of all this intrigue, to judge from probation employees’ testimony, was to protect the department’s budget. And yet the downside for the department was enormous: O’Brien pressed employees to cough up campaign contributions, and he demoralized some subordinates by turning them into cogs in a patronage machine. One mid-level official refused to list a state senator’s son as one of her top choices because she thought his past felony conviction should disqualify him. When O’Brien reassigned her, it became a warning to others who might be tempted to assert themselves.

Until O’Brien took over, the Probation Department in Massachusetts was a national model. But the conduct that Ware has described only breeds cynicism in the public. Beyond pressing for O’Brien’s removal, the Supreme Judicial Court has formed a task force, led by former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, to recommend ways of cleaning up hiring in the judiciary, including probation. That will help, but O’Brien has brought discredit to a broad swath of government.

O’Brien’s patronage machine was anything but a secret on Beacon Hill. And far from dismantling it, legislators took advantage of it as long as they could.