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DeLeo wants probation hires under Civil Service

Patrick, Murray say they back proposal

House Speaker Robert DeLeo's proposed legislation would bring Probation Department workers in line with police officers, firefighters, and parole employees, who are hired based on test scores and other objective standards set by the Civil Service Commission. House Speaker Robert DeLeo's proposed legislation would bring Probation Department workers in line with police officers, firefighters, and parole employees, who are hired based on test scores and other objective standards set by the Civil Service Commission. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / December 7, 2010

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House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said yesterday he will file legislation to make hiring and firing at the state Probation Department subject to civil service rules, in an attempt to begin repairing an agency badly damaged by a patronage scandal.

DeLeo, who is among those under fire for recommending people for probation jobs, said the change would bring Probation Department workers in line with police officers, firefighters, and parole employees, who are hired based on test scores and other objective standards set by the Civil Service Commission, rather than ties to politicians.

“We’ve got to try to restore confidence in how we do business in this building, how probation does business,’’ DeLeo said.

Thirty other states subject probation workers to civil service requirements, DeLeo said.

Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray stood with DeLeo and said they would support his measure. All three characterized the change as an initial step toward reform.

Patrick, Murray, and DeLeo also formally announced that they would set up a bipartisan nine-member commission to decide whether the Probation Department should be controlled by the executive branch, as the governor wants, or remain in the judiciary. The commission is scheduled to present its findings next month.

The three leaders pledged that professionalizing the agency will be one of their biggest priorities in the new session.

DeLeo has been navigating a political thicket as he attempts to respond to the Probation Department’s problems. At times he has downplayed the corrosive effects of patronage, even as he has vowed to fix the embattled agency. Last week, he said recommending candidates for probation jobs is part of a legislator’s responsibility. He also said on WBZ-AM that he was skeptical of placing the Probation Department under the civil service system, because civil service employees are afforded certain protections that make it more difficult to remove those who create problems.

But yesterday’s announcement was an acknowledgment from DeLeo that his response so far had not quelled the demand for greater oversight at the agency, and that the growing scandal was threatening to overshadow anything else he might want to accomplish in the new session in January. DeLeo yesterday was accompanied by Karen Schwartzman, a public relations specialist whom he has brought on to help manage the probation controversy. Schwartzman said she was being paid by the law firm Mintz Levin, which represents DeLeo’s political committee.

DeLeo said he had decided to support civil service requirements at the department after reflecting more on an independent counsel’s report released last month that found the agency’s hiring practices are riddled with fraud and abuse. The report, by Paul F. Ware Jr., blamed DeLeo and many of his colleagues in the Legislature for feeding the agency’s system of hiring politically connected candidates.

Ware found that DeLeo had sponsored at least 12 people for probation jobs, seven of whom were hired. One of those hired was DeLeo’s godson, Brian Mirasolo, who became one of the youngest chief probation officers in state history.

DeLeo has defended his godson, saying he earned his title. Yet, without faulting his own actions or those of other legislators, DeLeo conceded that Ware had identified “disturbing’’ employment practices at the agency.

“When you hear some of the statements of Mr. Ware in particular that the present system we have is corrupt, and has a lot of other issues with it as well, it’s necessary that we have to take action, and we have to take the most immediate action we can,’’ DeLeo said. “People . . . are concerned we’re not getting the best people in jobs at the probation office.’’

Under the civil service system, candidates for probation jobs would be grouped according to their scores on a test, and the department would choose from among the top scorers when it had a vacancy to fill. The candidates would also have to meet education and training requirements. That merit-based system would sharply reduce the potential for political interference and influence, DeLeo said.

Ware identified some state senators as frequent sponsors of Probation Department hires, and Murray, who heads that chamber, said the Legislature would seek to overhaul the agency before replenishing its budget.

The nine-member panel announced yesterday will attempt to resolve the power struggle on Beacon Hill over who controls the agency. Patrick reiterated that he believes he is best equipped to run probation because its mission overlaps with that of the Parole Board, which he already controls.

But DeLeo and Murray, along with the state’s top judges, have resisted transferring control of the agency from the judiciary. The panel members, who will be appointed by the governor, DeLeo, and Murray, will be announced later this week.

“We all agree that civil service is the right approach for hiring,’’ Patrick said. “But there are some other elements of a permanent fix that we’d like to come to consensus on in a bill.’’

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