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Petrolati fighting subpoena to testify

Probation Dept. hiring practices under scrutiny

Representative Thomas M. Petrolati has argued that Paul Ware doesn’t have the authority to investigate legislators. Representative Thomas M. Petrolati has argued that Paul Ware doesn’t have the authority to investigate legislators. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Scott Allen and Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / August 29, 2010

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A legislative leader whose wife, former aide, and scores of financial supporters have received jobs in the state Probation Department is fighting a subpoena ordering him to appear before an independent counsel investigating allegations of corrupt hiring practices within the agency.

Independent counsel Paul F. Ware had ordered Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, the third-ranking leader in the House of Representatives, to appear before him last week to answer questions about his efforts to secure probation jobs for his family, friends, and supporters. Ware also demanded documents about Petrolati’s relationship with Probation Commissioner John J. “Jack’’ O’Brien, who was suspended from his job in May after the Globe revealed a pattern of political favoritism in hiring.

Petrolati argues that Ware doesn’t have the authority to investigate legislators and could even provoke a “constitutional crisis’’ if Petrolati is forced to testify. In documents filed with the Supreme Judicial Court on Friday, Petrolati said the state’s highest court originally appointed Ware to investigate wrongdoing within the court system, but Ware now appears to be going after Petrolati, too.

“If the subpoena is enforced . . . Ware will have exceeded the authority delegated to him,’’ warned Petrolati’s attorney, John P. Pucci, asking the court to block the subpoena. Otherwise, Pucci added, if Petrolati refuses to testify, he could be held in contempt of court and “it does not strain the imagination to foresee a constitutional crisis.’’

Ware declined to comment on Petrolati’s legal move, but past legislators have resisted investigators’ demands by invoking some type of legislative privilege. Disgraced former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi refused to provide information about his ties to a Burlington software company, Cognos, in 2008, arguing that the constitution protects legislators’ deliberations from investigators’ scrutiny. DiMasi was later indicted by a federal grand jury and faces corruption charges in connection with the awarding of multimillion dollar contracts to the company.

Petrolati, a Ludlow Democrat renowned for his ability to get state jobs for his allies, was particularly close with O’Brien, who had run the Probation Department since 1998. During O’Brien’s tenure, Petrolati’s wife, Kathleen, his former aide Andre Pereira, and the husband of his current aide Colleen Ryan all received probation jobs that pay $74,000 or more.

The department’s payroll includes more than 90 financial backers of Petrolati, based on an analysis of campaign finance records. Many of the donations to Petrolati came from employees around the time they were either hired or promoted.

But Petrolati is only the most prominent among many legislators whose financial backers have received jobs or promotions in the department, a trend that accelerated after the Legislature gave O’Brien near-complete control over hiring decisions in 2001. During O’Brien’s tenure, the Legislature boosted probation’s budget at least eight times faster than other court agencies, according to a study by the Boston Foundation.

O’Brien, who remains on paid administrative leave, has also done legal battle with Ware, successfully petitioning the SJC last month to have an attorney present when he is interviewed under oath by Ware. However, Petrolati is the only one among dozens reportedly subpoenaed by Ware who has filed a motion to be excused from testifying.

Petrolati has defended his work on behalf of job seekers, saying he advocates for qualified people. However, his Northampton-based lawyer, Pucci, argues that his client should not be forced to answer questions under oath before a prosecutor who appears to be looking into wrongdoing by Petrolati. Pucci noted that Ware’s subpoena included a warning that he could face “unspecified and unknown civil claims and criminal prosecutions’’ as a result of his testimony. A similar warning was included with every witness’s subpoena.

Already, the court has agreed to one of Petrolati’s demands, declaring that a list of probation employees and others who Ware specifically wanted to ask him about will remain confidential. Next, the SJC likely will give Ware a chance to respond to Petrolati’s concerns before resolving the dispute.

The skirmish comes as Ware, an experienced public corruption prosecutor who is chief of litigation at Goodwin Procter of Boston, pushes to finish his report to the SJC. The court initially asked for his report by Aug. 23, but the order authorizing Ware’s inquiry simply requires that he finish “as soon as possible.’’

The Spotlight Team would like to hear from readers with tips about the state’s Probation Department. The telephone number is 617-929-3208. Confidential messages can also be left at 617-929-7483. The e-mail address is spotlight@globe.com.

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