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At Probation, new chief keeps focus on future

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Scott Allen and Thomas Farragher
Globe Staff / December 29, 2010

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He might have been probation commissioner all along if the chief justice had not lowered the education requirements in 1997 so that a protégé of House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran could apply for the job.

Instead, Ronald P. Corbett Jr. is trying to clean up the mess that Commissioner John J. O’Brien left behind when he was suspended in May for presiding over what an independent counsel has described as “pervasive fraud’’ in hiring and promotion.

As acting administrator of the troubled 2,200-employee agency, the buttoned-down Corbett six months ago replaced a boss who ruled by intimidation and conveyed his most important orders on yellow stick-on notes while apparently seldom touching his computer.

Special counsel Paul F. Ware Jr. concluded that O’Brien had spent much of his 12-year reign running an elaborate phony hir ing system to hide the fact that he was funneling jobs to politically connected candidates.

Corbett has been trying to rebuild while working alongside many of the O’Brien loyalists whom Ware blamed most for what he called fraudulent hiring and promotion. One of them, chief attorney Christopher J. Bulger, made no secret of the fact that he was regularly briefing the ousted O’Brien about the goings-on inside the department.

But even after Robert A. Mulligan, the chief justice for administration and management, decided last month to suspend three of probation’s top deputies — including Bulger — and begin termination proceedings against O’Brien, Corbett refuses to dwell on the misery visited upon the once-respected agency. His employees may be bracing for the state and federal criminal investigations that are just beginning, but Corbett says he won’t be distracted from his mission.

“It’s good for everyone involved to rededicate themselves to their work, throw yourself into it,’’ Corbett says he tells the people work for him. “Take a page from [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick. We’re focusing on the next engagement. And that’s it.’’

Already, Corbett has put the Probation Department on a diet of reality after years in which politics seemed to afflict every aspect of its work. For example, O’Brien used to claim that his department supervised more than 250,000 people, a number the Globe Spotlight Team concluded was a grossly inflated figure intended to give the impression that his staff was overworked.

Corbett quickly discovered that O’Brien was using a badly misleading technique to count the criminals he supervises. The real number under probation’s responsibility is about 85,000, Corbett has concluded.

Corbett also has begun to dismantle O’Brien’s bloated electronic monitoring program, which was created to track the movement of offenders wearing electronic ankle bracelets but appeared more focused on creating jobs.

A Spotlight Team survey showed that the department had more electronic monitoring employees — 59 — and more monitoring centers — three — than any other state, yet the program still failed to protect a Framingham woman who was repeatedly raped and held hostage for five hours by a convicted rapist wearing one of the bracelets. So far, Corbett has closed one of the three centers and told five of the program’s managers they will be reassigned on Jan. 1.

“I want to emphasize that this is a rolling process,’’ Corbett said in an interview at the Supreme Judicial Court’s offices in Boston. “I’m not going to rule out additional moves.’’

Perhaps most important, Corbett is overhauling a hiring and promotion process that independent counsel Ware concluded constituted “fraud on a grand scale against the Commonwealth.’’

Now, Corbett is spreading the word that merit, not connections, should determine who gets a job and he is sitting on the interview panels to enforce that philosophy. He has told employees that he plans to open up many of the senior jobs O’Brien had filled on an “acting’’ basis in the last years of his tenure, requiring more than 30 chief probation officers across the state to compete for their jobs. O’Brien had used the interim appointments as a way to skirt a court hiring freeze and continue filling jobs that pay up to $102,000 a year. But, as a result, the appointments are all temporary.

“They’re straight-up openings. If you meet the qualifications, you can submit an application,’’ said Corbett, who said he hasn’t received a single call from legislators promoting their job candidates.

It’s been a long, unlikely trip back to the Probation Department for Corbett, who was a top candidate for the commissioner’s post in 1997 when he was the right-hand man to Donald Cochran, O’Brien’s predecessor. At the time, the department was widely respected for its use of research and analysis to improve the rehabilitation of criminal offenders. And Corbett, who has a doctorate in education, had just been named “Probation Executive of the Year’’ by the National Association of Probation Executives.

But the chief justice for administration at the time, the late John J. Irwin Jr., changed the requirement that the probation commissioner should have an advanced degree, allowing O’Brien, a former Boston College football player with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, to apply. O’Brien, a probation officer who had also worked with Irwin, then won the job, promising to make Probation Department employees more likely to spend time on the streets than at their desks.

To this day, Corbett insists he was not crushed by disappointment and he simply moved on to become a top court administrator. But the probation employees Corbett left behind quickly learned that O’Brien’s management style was almost the opposite of the scholarly, collegial Cochran. The secretive O’Brien seldom spoke publicly and, under his leadership, the Probation Department stopped participating in national organizations and stopped working closely with the other Massachusetts public safety officials.

Nonetheless, O’Brien’s inside pull on Beacon Hill allowed him to build his own budget far more quickly than other parts of the court system, while consolidating power to hire and promote people in his office. For four consecutive years, from 2006 to 2009, O’Brien’s department received millions more for its budget than the Trial Court requested on its behalf.

But there was a price for the Legislature’s largesse, as the Probation Department came to resemble a hiring agency for the well-connected. The Spotlight Team documented more than 250 employees with personal or political connections, including the godson of current House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo; the wife of one of DeLeo’s top lieutenants, Representative Thomas M. Petrolati; the daughter and nephew of Irwin; and the daughter of O’Brien himself. O’Brien’s staff maintained detailed “sponsor lists’’ to track all the job candidates being put forward by legislators, judges, and other powerful people.

Ware’s report in November named 24 of the top 29 managers at probation as potential law-breakers, for fraudulent hiring, perjury, or illegally soliciting campaign contributions. Several refused to answer Ware’s questions at all, including Petrolati’s wife, Kathleen.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley and US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz have launched criminal probes of the Probation Department.

Yet, despite all the intrigue around him, Corbett is keeping his eyes on big-picture concerns such as rebuilding the department’s fractured relationships with other public safety agencies and making sure its own record keeping is reliable.

“I don’t have a big rear-view mirror in the car that I’m driving,’’ said Corbett. “I’ve got to focus on going forward and making sure that certain standards are maintained.’’

In fact, Corbett said he has had no trouble working alongside O’Brien friends and foes alike, including the three O’Brien deputies who were suspended last month — Elizabeth V. Tavares, Francis M. Wall, and Bulger — for their role in the scandal.

“I would have to say generally, I’ve been met with complete cooperation at every level,’’ he said, insisting that all three suspended deputies were making positive contributions to the end.

In a recent meeting with department leaders, Corbett said he realizes that the agency is disheartened and some are worried about whether they will keep their jobs or face prosecution.

“At least some of them have that unsettled feeling, that troubled feeling,’’ Corbett said. “That doesn’t go away all at once.

“My job is to take the kind of steps and encourage people in ways that will help eliminate as much of the obvious distractions that they could have in their work,’’ he said.

The Globe Spotlight Team would like to hear from readers with tips about this and other stories. 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.