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Probation uproar fuels state campaigns

Patronage decried by legislative challengers

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 29, 2010

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From Western Massachusetts to West Roxbury, the controversy at the state Probation Department is reverberating in political races as candidates for the Legislature and other offices seize on reports of the agency’s record of patronage as yet another reason to sweep incumbents out of office.

In the race for the state Senate seat being vacated by Marian Walsh, one of the candidates is state Representative Michael F. Rush of Boston, who a judge said was an “omnipresence’’ in the Probation Department, where his father was a chief probation officer. Rush’s Republican opponent, Brad Williams, has called on Rush to “give a full accounting of his involvement’’ with the agency.

In the race for Hampden district attorney, Democrat Michael T. Kogut has been urging his rival, Democratic state Senator Stephen J. Buoniconti of West Springfield, to answer questions about his relationship to the agency, saying “the public is entitled to a complete and thorough explanation’’ and “the district attorney must be seen as free from political patronage and favoritism.’’

Even some incumbents who have not been directly implicated in the probation uproar are feeling the heat. Democrat Charles Rudnick, who is challenging Democratic state Senator Cynthia Stone Creem of Newton, said he pressed her about the management of the Probation Department during a recent debate at Newton South High School, before the publication on Sunday of a Globe Spotlight Team report detailing the agency’s problems.

“My objection to Senator Creem’s role in this is the lack of any action or leadership,’’ said Rudnick, a former chief of staff to state Senator Warren Tolman. “She’s been in the Senate for 12 years. She’s chair of the Judiciary Committee. And it wasn’t until our debate and the Globe Spotlight series that she took any action. I find that very troubling.’’

Creem did, on Tuesday, unveil changes, which passed the Senate this week, to give the judiciary more power over the agency’s hiring and spending.

The Republican Party, in particular, is seizing on the Probation Department controversy to attack Democratic hegemony. Tarah Donoghue, a spokeswoman for the state GOP, said the agency’s troubles “show what happens when you have one-party domination.’’

“The Democrats only reform when they are shamed into it,’’ she said.

The Spotlight Team reported that the Probation Department became a haven for politically connected hiring and lax spending controls in the nine years since the Legislature took control of the agency away from the courts and handed it to the probation commissioner, John J. O’Brien.

The report cited several examples of politicians enjoying close ties to O’Brien, who reportedly helped family members and political supporters get jobs. Those accounts have quickly become ammunition for candidates trying to ride a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment.

Williams, for example, has been pressing Rush to account for whether he played any role in O’Brien’s hiring of his 73-year-old father, James J. Rush, who was chosen over a more qualified candidate as a favor for Thomas M. Finneran, then the House speaker, according to the Spotlight report.

“I was out shaking hands last night at a Little League game and people were concerned about it,’’ said Williams, a principal at Boston Investment Advisers. “This is what people have come to expect from Beacon Hill and, especially this year, people don’t want it anymore. They don’t want what I call the tribal patronage where you take care of your friends and family.’’

Rush responded in an e-mail to the Globe, writing, “I have no comment.’’ He has denied in the past wielding influence at the agency.

Michael Rush sponsored a successful budget amendment this year that would move the office of Robert A. Mulligan, the chief justice in charge of court management who had clashed with his father, from downtown Boston to cramped quarters above Charlestown District Court.

Kogut, a Springfield lawyer, has been challenging Buoniconti to explain what role, if any, he played in the Probation Department’s personnel matters.

The Globe reported that a probation official, Michael J. LeCours, donated $1,800 to Buoniconti after LeCours got in trouble in 2003 for writing a letter of recommendation for a convicted racketeer on court stationery. Since then, LeCours has become a supervisor and received a pay increase.

“The district attorney must set a higher standard,’’ Kogut said in a statement.

Buoniconti said he has known LeCours for years, but “had nothing to do with anything that happened with his job,’’ and had “no idea why he wrote that letter.’’ LeCours also denies Buoniconti played any role.

“I’m embarrassed that he did,’’ Buoniconti said. “It’s as simple as that. There’s nothing else to it.’’

Creem challenged Rudnick’s assertion that she has failed to push for change at the Probation Department. She noted that she pushed an amendment last year that would have given Mulligan control of the agency’s budget, although the measure failed. She also said the full scope of the agency’s problems did not become apparent until the Spotlight report.

“There might be other issues that I don’t know about that I won’t be able to correct,’’ she said, adding that since the pattern of politicized hiring came to light, “my constituents have been so thrilled that I have taken leadership on this.’’

Not every candidate sees the issue as an opportunity to challenge incumbents. Democrat Michael F. Walsh is also in the race for Marian Walsh’s seat, but said he has not raised questions about Rush’s ties to the Probation Department. He said he may do so in the fall but is just “taking notes’’ for now.

“In my speaking with voters, I don’t find that they’ve heard that much about it,’’ said Walsh, a lawyer from Westwood. Plus, he said, “I’m trying to run a clean campaign.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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