Probation Commissioner John J. O'Brien was relieved of his duties today and the leadership of the state's judicial branch appointed a special master to conduct a "prompt and thorough" investigation into the probation agency.
O'Brien's suspension - with pay - was announced a day after the Globe Spotlight Team detailed O'Brien's tenure atop a probation agency that is larded with patronage jobs, in which political contributions can be key to career advancement and sloppy financial oversight has left the department vulnerable to theft.
"We are deeply concerned with not only the proper administration of the Probation Department, but with how such reports may affect the public's perception of the integrity of all aspects of the judicial branch,'' Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Judge Robert A. Mulligan, the trial court's chief justice for administration and management said in a joint statement.
"The reporting by the Globe Spotlight Team requires a full, prompt and independent inquiry,'' the judges said in their statement.
O'Brien's annual salary is $130,000.
The court leadership's decision to sanction O'Brien may mean the end of his 12-year career atop a department with more than 2,000 employees whose central mission is to supervise tens of thousands of those convicted of crimes and sentenced to serve their time in the community.
Paul F. Ware, Jr., a senior partner at the law firm Goodwin Procter in Boston, has extensive experience investigating alleged public corruption.
In 2007, he served as a special assistant attorney general to Martha Coakley, leading her investigation into the mistakes and lax oversight that led to the fatal collapse of a Big Dig tunnel ceiling. Previously, Ware worked on the federal investigation of the Iran Contra scandal in the 1980s as an attorney in the Office of Independent Counsel.
The court issued a formal order -- signed by all seven justices of the SJC -- spelling out its actions against O'Brien.
Under the order, Ware has been given powerful weapons to use during his inquiry. "The Independent Counsel shall have, in addition to the usual powers of Special Master and Commissioner, the power to subpoena witnesses and to administer oaths,'' the SJC said in its order.
With O'Brien placed on administrative leave, Ronald P. Corbett Jr., now the executive director of the Supreme Judicial Court and former deputy probation commissioner, has been named the acting administrator of the agency. Corbett was the insiders' consensus choice for the top job in 1998 when O'Brien instead was promoted.
Governor Deval Patrick and his Republican rival, Charles D. Baker, have called for Attorney General Martha Coakley to open an investigation. Baker has called for O'Brien's prompt dismissal. Patrick urged the Legislature to transfer supervision of the probation agency from the judicial to the executive branch -- a move the governor said would give him the authority to sanction O'Brien.
The independent candidate for governor, state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, blamed the Legislature for taking hiring authority away from judges in 2001 and giving it to O'Brien. He said he wants to return the agency to judiciary oversight.
Coakley's office said the Spotlight Team report "raises troubling concerns'' and a spokeswoman in her office said Coakley is "reviewing the situation to determine what role our office can and should play.''
O'Brien, a 53-year-old Dorchester native, graduated in 1979 from Boston College, where he played football and made a key connection with Judge John J. Irwin, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from BC. Irwin would later become -- along with former House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran -- O'Brien's chief political patrons.
Irwin, now deceased, was the trial court's chief administrative justice for administration and management in 1997 when he appointed O'Brien state's seventh commissioner of probation.
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