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Probation chief fires agency’s top lawyer

Bulger is 4th ousted amid fallout from corruption inquiry

Christopher Bulger has been on paid suspension. Christopher Bulger has been on paid suspension.
By Scott Allen
Globe Staff / May 31, 2011

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Acting Probation Commissioner Ronald P. Corbett Jr. has fired the agency’s top lawyer, concluding that Christopher J. Bulger “violated his professional duty’’ by repeatedly briefing Corbett’s disgraced predecessor about the investigation into his conduct.

In a confidential order dated May 9, Corbett called for Bulger’s immediate dismissal for numerous reasons, including “a distressing failure to understand a lawyer’s fundamental duty to preserve his clients’ confidences.’’ The Globe has obtained a copy of the order.

Bulger, who has been on paid suspension from his $119,495-a-year job since November, admitted during last year’s investigation that he telephoned his former boss, John J. O’Brien, two to three times per week after O’Brien was suspended in May 2010. O’Brien’s suspension came amid allegations that he oversaw a rigged hiring system that funneled jobs to applicants with political or personal connections.

Bulger also admitted that he told O’Brien who was being called to testify before independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr., who was investigating O’Brien and other Probation Department officials last year. Bulger acknowledged that he discussed evidence Ware had gathered, according to Corbett’s dismissal order.

“Bulger had no legitimate basis for discussing any aspect of the investigation with O’Brien,’’ Corbett wrote in his May 9 order.

Corbett also concluded that Bulger knew, or should have known, that O’Brien was pressuring subordinates to hire and promote O’Brien’s favored job candidates whether they were qualified or not.

“The facts also warrant a finding against Bulger of inefficiency, incompetence, negligence in the performance of duties, or failure to be knowledgeable and current in his area of job responsibility,’’ Corbett wrote.

Bulger’s lawyer, Christopher R. O’Hara, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that his client disagrees with Corbett’s decision, calling it “absolutely outrageous.’’ O’Hara said Bulger is precluded by court order from commenting on the underlying facts in the case, but that he will seek an administrative review of the decision to terminate Bulger.

“The decision appears to be nothing more than the scapegoating of someone due to his last name, particularly when Mr. Bulger was neither involved in, nor aware of, the alleged rigged hiring and promotion practices of the Probation Department,’’ O’Hara wrote.

O’Hara said that he intends to appeal Corbett’s firing order within the Administrative Office of the Trial Court, which oversees probation. It was unclear whether Bulger’s termination would remain in effect during the appeal process.

Bulger, son of former Senate president William M. Bulger, is the last to leave his job among four senior Probation Department employees whom Ware had singled out as most responsible for the agency’s corrupt hiring and promotion system, which was exposed in a series of articles by the Globe Spotlight Team.

The Spotlight Team found that, after 12 years in charge, O’Brien had transformed the department from a pioneer in better ways to rehabilitate criminals into an organization that functions like an employment agency for the well-connected — sometimes with disastrous results, such as the time he installed the 73-year-old father of a state legislator as chief probation officer in West Roxbury District Court.

O’Brien, a protégé of Thomas M. Finneran, the former House speaker, resigned on New Year’s Eve, right before a disciplinary hearing that could have led to his firing. Two other deputies also departed in the face of disciplinary proceedings, but Bulger chose to fight for his job, asking to be reinstated without any discipline.

“Mr. Bulger’s career in the trial court has been exemplary and he is widely respected by employees in the Probation Department,’’ said the statement released by O’Hara.

Bulger’s testimony in Ware’s investigation last October provided much of the evidence that Corbett used to justify firing him.

Bulger, who joined the Probation Department in 1998 and became chief counsel in 2008, told Ware that he had always assumed that O’Brien and his top deputies were passing along the names of favored job candidates to local hiring committees at courts across the state.

But Bulger said he did nothing to investigate even though political favoritism in hiring violates the Probation Department’s explicit policy to make hiring decisions “solely on the basis of merit.’’

Bulger also told Ware that he remained loyal to O’Brien after his suspension and called him several times a week, in part to provide “comfort.’’ Bulger also said he would “share information that I learned’’ about the investigation by Ware, who had been appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court to conduct a broad-ranging inquiry into the conduct of O’Brien and others.

In his scathing report last November, Ware concluded that Bulger should be dismissed and possibly disbarred for providing legal counsel that was “dishonest or incompetent.’’

In a statement yesterday, Ware said that the firing of Bulger was well justified.

“Mr. Bulger repeatedly ignored his fiduciary, ethical, and legal obligations to the public and the Probation Department,’’ Ware said. “His removal represents an important blow to what became a thoroughly corrupt process which he first encouraged and ultimately ignored.’’

In firing Bulger, Corbett noted that Bulger never responded to Ware’s findings, declining to testify at his disciplinary hearing.

As Bulger’s supervisor, Corbett said it was fair for him to infer that “Bulger did not testify in response to the evidence presented against him because he could not have credibly rebutted it.’’

O’Hara said Bulger “vigorously disagrees’’ with Ware’s report and that his client is not allowed to comment on his prior sworn testimony to Ware because the information was impounded by the Supreme Judicial Court.

Megan Woolhouse of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Scott Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com.