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Union to sue on probation hiring

Wants members rejected unfairly compensated for agency corruption

By Marcella Bombardieri and Scott Allen
Globe Staff / November 23, 2010

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The union representing probation officers said yesterday that it will sue the Probation Department and the state Trial Court that nominally oversees it, an ominous sign that years of alleged widespread fraud and corruption in the agency may mean expensive legal exposure.

“The depth and breadth of the corruption here is almost beyond comprehension,’’ said David J. Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees, referring to the portrait of fraudulent hiring “on a grand scale’’ that independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr. sketched in a damning 307-page report released last week.

As US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz and state Attorney General Martha Coakley consider possible criminal charges in the scandal, Holway said his union intends to file suit to protect members and win them compensation for being denied promotions they deserved that went instead to less-qualified, politically connected candidates.

People who never got a job in the department in the first place may file lawsuits independently, Holway said.

Ware said in his report that the rigged hiring system left the probation agency vulnerable to potential lawsuits from deserving candidates who were bypassed.

“The amounts in question could be substantial,’’ he said.

Ware said two deputy commissioners, Francis M. Wall and Patricia A. Walsh, may have perjured themselves in arbitration proceedings because, in the 38 arbitration cases Ware reviewed, officials did not disclose that scoring was based on instructions from top officials to favor certain candidates.

“The question was asked in several of those cases, ‘Was there a list of preferred candidates?’ — and the answer was always no,’’ Holway said.

Some of Ware’s witnesses identified specific individuals who would have been finalists if the sponsored candidates had not been given preferential treatment. Union officials said they had never won a grievance over a probation officer’s promotion, despite what Ware called obvious unfairness.

In one of the cases in which officials denied receiving any names of preferred candidates, Christopher Hoffman won a job in Hampshire Superior Court over Jason Harder. An arbitrator found that Hoffman’s selection was “fair and regular.’’

That is despite the fact that Hoffman was given the same credit for his time as an associate probation officer as Harder got for his time as a full-fledged probation officer, the union said. Hoffman’s previous job at a state social service agency was deemed relevant, while Harder’s work as a corrections officer was not. Harder did not get credit for his 19 years in the Air Force National Guard, serving as a medic in five war zones, the union complained.

Another possible advantage for Hoffman not noted by the arbitrator: He was a bartender at a pizzeria in Northampton frequented by the powerful former deputy commissioner, William H. Burke III. Hoffman is now an acting chief probation officer, while Harder is still a line probation officer.

Also yesterday, the union called for Robert A. Mulligan, the chief judge for administration and management, to step down.

Through a spokeswoman, Mulligan declined to comment yesterday.

Ware’s report shines a critical light on Mulligan, who challenged O’Brien many times over his hiring policies, but rarely took the ultimate step of rejecting O’Brien’s hires.

The Legislature clearly meant to remove judicial oversight of the Probation Department when it gave O’Brien exclusive hiring authority in 2001. And legislators’ sway over the Trial Court’s budget has been seen as chilling judges’ attempts at greater oversight.

But Mulligan acknowledged to the independent counsel that he could have rejected candidates based on a court policy that requires that candidates be hired on the basis of merit alone.

The Trial Court “must reassert its role in reforming standards for hiring within the Probation Department,’’ Ware wrote.

Thomas Farragher of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com; Allen at allen@globe.com.