DESPITE WHAT House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray would have the public believe, steering people into government jobs is not a part of a legislator’s role. Legislators have a clear-cut task: to pass and repeal laws. When they dabble instead as human-resources officers for other branches of government, they are overstepping their bounds.
DeLeo and Murray have both argued for an overhaul of the state Probation Department, after the Globe Spotlight Team and more recently an independent counsel documented the agency’s largess toward job candidates sponsored by powerful legislators. But the two top legislative leaders deeply undercut any pro-reform message Monday, when they insisted that recommending people for state jobs is part of what lawmakers do. “We get thousands of requests a year,’’ Murray said. DeLeo, who recommended his godson for a probation job, insisted that he does not “put any undue influence on anyone.’’
But any administrator would have trouble ignoring a recommendation by someone who, in his legislative role, controls the state budget. That’s why innocuous-sounding recommendations can be so insidious. Lawmakers see them as an extension of their perks and power. But they result in a culture of favoritism that betrays taxpayers and undermines the legitimate goals of government. Murray and DeLeo shouldn’t pretend to be unfamiliar with the history of legislators protecting underperforming employees and treating state jobs as giveaways.
They also shouldn’t try to disguise attempts to influence the hiring process as a simple forwarding of résumés. Let’s be clear: There is an absolute separation between legislative and executive functions. Legislators should not recommend people for jobs outside of their own offices.
While independent counsel Paul Ware’s report did not accuse DeLeo or Murray of breaking any laws, they were among those who made efforts on specific candidates’ behalf. In a statement this week, DeLeo said he presumes “that agencies select and employ the best qualified candidates, without regard to who might have recommended the person.’’ That doesn’t pass the laugh test, especially after the probation scandal, yet it’s interesting how he and other lawmakers who steadfastly deny pressuring anyone are nevertheless quick to claim credit for making “recommendations.’’ Now-suspended Probation Commissioner John O’Brien’s willingness to rig his department’s hiring process in favor of legislators’ preferred applicants made him popular among lawmakers — so much so that his budget ballooned even as caseloads remained flat and other agencies absorbed deep cuts.
That’s profoundly wrong, and a distortion of priorities. The culture of patronage is so ingrained that legislative leaders have trouble seeing what’s offensive about it. When Ware’s report came out, Murray was traveling, and DeLeo initially said little. But his Ways and Means chairman, Charles Murphy, leapt to the defense of Representative Thomas Petrolati, a key figure in the probation scandal. DeLeo eventually dumped Petrolati from his leadership team and has called for changes at probation. Murray has made vague noises about reforms as well. But legislators must own up to their role in the scandal as well — by getting out of the personnel business entirely.