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O’Brien resigns amid scandal

Probation chief says he has been made a scapegoat

JOHN J. O’BRIEN JOHN J. O’BRIEN
By Thomas Farragher and Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / January 1, 2011

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State Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien, whose alleged use of his agency’s payroll to reward political patrons plunged the department into scandal and left it subject to federal and state criminal investigations, abruptly resigned yesterday.

O’Brien, in a statement issued by his lawyer, said he was being made a scapegoat and denied breaking any laws.

The 53-year-old commissioner was facing almost certain termination after a disciplinary hearing tentatively scheduled for Tuesday.

“Commissioner O’Brien’s due process rights have been violated, and it is inconceivable that, under these circumstances, he will receive a fair hearing,’’ the prepared statement said.

His resignation was effective immediately.

O’Brien’s departure, while expected, is a stunning conclusion to his 29-year career at the probation agency. He began at Suffolk Superior Court and concluded at the top of the agency, where he was known simply as Jack and his autocratic rule was rarely questioned.

O’Brien was suspended May 24, the day after the Globe Spotlight Team detailed how his tenure at the probation agency was pervaded with political patronage jobs, how political contributions were often linked with advancement, and how lax fiscal oversight left the department vulnerable to fraud.

The Supreme Judicial Court acted swiftly to strip O’Brien of his daily duties and appointed Paul F. Ware Jr. as an independent counsel to investigate the agency. Ware’s damning 307-page report landed with tectonic force in November, detailing an agency riddled with fraud and “systemic corruption.’’

The SJC also ordered immediate disciplinary proceedings against three of O’Brien’s chief deputies, who were suspended with pay, effectively lopping off the top management of the 2,000-employee agency.

“The fraud begins at the top with Commissioner O’Brien, and it extends through most of the hierarchy of the department,’’ Ware wrote in his report.

O’Brien has declined to speak with the Globe since a brief interview in March. A woman who answered the telephone at his Quincy home last night said: “I have no comment for you. I hope you have a Happy New Year’s.’’ A knock on O’Brien’s door went unanswered.

But in a press release posted late yesterday on CommonWealth Magazine’s website, O’Brien’s lawyer sketched his most vigorous defense to date.

He called Ware’s findings “completely unsubstantiated allegations’’ and said that “at no time was anything of value or any other favor promised to or requested by Commissioner O’Brien from anyone making a recommendation for any individual seeking employment or a promotion within the Probation Department.’’

CommonWealth Magazine said O’Brien’s lawyer, Paul Flavin, e-mailed a press release announcing O’Brien’s departure. He did not send the release to the Globe. Efforts to reach Flavin at his home last night were not successful.

“Commissioner O’Brien categorically denies any participation in any fraud or corruption and steadfastly maintains that neither he, nor any of the employees of the Probation Department, violated any federal or state criminal statutes in connection with the hiring or promotion of employees within the Probation Department,’’ Flavin said in the statement.

O’Brien was subpoenaed to testify under oath before Ware and his investigators. At first, the commissioner promised full cooperation. Ultimately, O’Brien cited his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and declined to testify.

In his statement yesterday, Flavin said Ware had already concluded that the probation agency’s hiring process was rigged, before the commissioner got a chance to tell his side of the story.

Flavin said people from all sectors of government make recommendations for jobs on the state payroll. “The singling out of Commissioner O’Brien is a travesty,’’ he said.

With his resignation, O’Brien can apply for a retirement pension. If he were charged with a crime and ultimately convicted, he could forfeit his benefits, according to state Treasury officials.

Legal specialists who have examined Ware’s report said O’Brien’s legal peril is not insignificant. A federal grand jury is weighing charges, including fraud and extortion. State Attorney General Martha Coakley has assigned a team of prosecutors to “aggressively pursue’’ violations of state law.

O’Brien’s fate appeared sealed with the release of Ware’s meticulously detailed report. It alleged that the probation agency under O’Brien “committed pervasive fraud against the Commonwealth’’ that went on for years and involved dozens of employees.

O’Brien and his chief lieutenants oversaw hiring practices that were rigged “on a grand scale,’’ conducting thousands of bogus job interviews for positions already set aside for the politically connected.

Among those facing discipline, including possible dismissal, are O’Brien’s former chief deputy, Elizabeth V. Tavares, Deputy Commissioner Francis M. Wall, and the probation agency’s chief legal counsel, Deputy Commissioner Christopher J. Bulger.

Ware said Tavares was “at the heart of perpetuating the sham selection process,’’ routinely passing along O’Brien’s favored candidates to interview panels whose work was largely illusory.

The special counsel said several witnesses told him Wall collected campaign donations on state property. “It is impossible to see, given potentially criminal conduct and his history of retaliation, how Wall can remain in a position of authority,’’ Ware concluded.

The independent counsel said Bulger “had substantial reason to believe that wrongdoing was occurring and chose to ignore it.’’ Bulger, son of former state Senate president William M. Bulger, was “evasive and dishonest,’’ Ware said.

Ronald P. Corbett Jr., the acting probation administrator, reached at his home last night, said he was not aware of O’Brien’s resignation. He declined to comment.

Bruce Tarr, who will become the Senate minority leader next week, called O’Brien’s resignation “a positive development.’’

“But I think it would be a mistake to think that we don’t have serious reforms yet to make,’’ Tarr said. “The conditions that allowed the improprieties to happen are still in place, despite the fact that a key player is leaving.’’

House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr., Republican of North Reading, called the departure of O’Brien “long overdue, however an appropriate way to usher in the New Year.’’

“It is my hope that this will be the first step in the long, difficult process of cleaning up what is known to be a very corrupt Probation Department,’’ Jones said.

O’Brien’s resignation is “a terrific opportunity to redefine and recalibrate the Probation Department so that it meets basic standards of best practices and can be the top-notch Probation Department it was 15 years ago,’’ said Len Engel, managing associate for policy at the Crime and Justice Institute, part of the Boston-based nonprofit Community Resources for Justice.

Engel has authored studies highlighting the large budget and poor management at the Probation Department, and he battled O’Brien in a mostly fruitless effort to get basic data.

If O’Brien’s demise lay in fixing jobs for political insiders, it was a skill he learned early. In fact, that practice may have begun on the day in 1998 when he became the state’s seventh commissioner of probation.

In 1984, when his predecessor was appointed, the top job at probation required a master’s degree or doctorate. O’Brien has a sociology degree from Boston College.

Ware found evidence that the late John J. Irwin Jr., the chief justice for administration and management in 1998, “made the qualifications for commissioner less rigorous so that O’Brien would qualify.’’

Irwin was an early and important influence on O’Brien’s rise to power at the Probation Department. He tapped O’Brien to be his key aide as legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Trial Court.

They both attended Boston College, and Irwin’s interest in O’Brien’s career would prove to be seminal. When Irwin showed up on Beacon Hill, lobbying on behalf of the Trial Court and its budget, O’Brien was his shadow.

That led to lasting and fruitful relationships in the Legislature, such as those with former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran and Representative Thomas M. Petrolati. O’Brien parlayed those connections to boost his budget and deflect challenges from judges, union chiefs, and other public safety officials who chafed at his secretive and pugnacious style.

After O’Brien was suspended, his lawyer said the probation chief looked forward to testifying before Ware to correct the Globe’s account of how he led his department. But, like seven of his employees, O’Brien declined to answer Ware’s questions under oath. He would not even confirm whether he had obeyed an SJC edict that all evidence must be preserved.

O’Brien, a line probation officer and an assistant chief probation officer in Boston for 15 years before he began to rise within the organization, declined the Globe’s repeated attempts to interview him at his office on Beacon Hill.

He consented only to one 30-minute telephone interview with the Spotlight Team in March.

In that testy exchange, O’Brien denied that he had rigged the hiring and promotion practices to make sure the politically connected landed jobs on his payroll.

“Like many organizations, recommendations concerning a particular candidate are forwarded to this office,’’ O’Brien said. “We select the most qualified individuals to carry out the responsibilities in a professional and competent manner.’’

Andrea Estes of the Globe Spotlight Team and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Thomas Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com; Marcella Bombardieri at bombardieri@globe.com.