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Probation officials face suspensions

Managers tied to deceptive hiring process

By Scott Allen and Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / October 20, 2011

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Amid rising expectations that federal indictments are coming soon in the Probation Department hiring scandal, Commissioner Ronald P. Corbett Jr. has informed more than a dozen senior managers this week that he plans to take disciplinary action against them for their role in a sham hiring process that systematically funneled jobs and promotions to politically connected candidates.

John J. O’Brien, the department’s former commissioner, and three top deputies already have resigned or been fired - and O’Brien faces state criminal charges for allegedly trading campaign contributions from his employees to get a job for his wife at the state lottery. But Corbett, O’Brien’s successor, has been deliberating for almost a year over how to punish other department employees who participated in what independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr. called systemic corruption.

This week, Corbett sent disciplinary letters to most of the 12 regional supervisors who oversaw the job interview process as well as other human resources employees, telling them they are facing unpaid suspensions of varying lengths, according to one person who received a letter. At least two supervisors received suspensions of 30 days, according to the employee.

“After a careful and thoughtful review and in consultation with the administrative office of the trial court, I have determined that some administrative action must be considered based upon the investigation performed by independent counsel Paul Ware concerning your previous conduct in the hiring and promotion process of probation personnel,’’ wrote Corbett.

“At this time and in order to conclude this matter and move forward as an organization I would be willing to resolve any disciplinary action with (an) unpaid suspension . . .’’ he wrote, giving employees until Oct. 28 to contest the punishment

The disciplined managers will also be required to participate in a statewide training on ethics in hiring and whistleblowing, Corbett wrote.

Corbett and his boss, Robert A. Mulligan, the state’s chief justice for administration, declined to comment on the disciplinary actions or even say how many letters were sent out, asserting it is a confidential personnel matter.

But Ware, appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate probation after the Globe Spotlight Team found that O’Brien had turned it into an employment agency for the well-connected few, said the disciplinary actions were well-deserved.

Ware’s damning 337-page report portrayed a court agency where O’Brien often designated the finalists for job openings ahead of time and expected his managers to interview hundreds of candidates anyway to create the appearance of an open process.

“It is not only a responsible action by the commissioner and the court, but a necessary action based on the investigation that I conducted,’’ said Ware, who had met with probation officials to discuss how to carry out his recommendations. “I believe the commissioner had no choice but to follow the investigation with his own internal effort to put the Probation Department on the footing of a true meritocracy that serves the public.’’

However, one suspended employee said it is unfair to punish others for carrying out O’Brien’s orders. Ware’s own report showed that on at least two occasions, O’Brien punished managers who did not follow his hiring instructions by giving them unattractive jobs far from their homes.

“I find it insulting,’’ said this employee, who asked not to be named because he fears further repercussions. “I’m not defending what was done, but what were you supposed to do? The kid [O’Brien] was powerful for a while.’’

Sources with direct knowledge of Corbett’s strategy say that he wants to complete disciplinary actions by the end of 2011 so that he can get back to the business of rebuilding the 2,200-employee agency after 12 years under O’Brien, an ally of Thomas M. Finneran, the disgraced former House speaker. The Massachusetts Probation Department was once a national leader in supervising criminals in the community, but the agency had become increasingly secretive and isolated from national trends under O’Brien.

The disciplinary actions may be just the beginning of the fallout from the scandal.

One person with direct knowledge said he is “100 percent sure’’ that a federal grand jury hearing testimony in the case will soon hand up criminal indictments against current or former probation officials.

In his report, Ware said that Probation Department employees may have committed wire or mail fraud when they used the phone, mail, or e-mail to set up interviews when they knew ahead of time that the job was already promised to a politically connected candidate. Ware identified nearly two dozen probation employees who could be vulnerable to federal wire or mail fraud charges.

Other potential targets for prosecutors include top state legislators who used their influence with O’Brien to get jobs for relatives, friends, and supporters. Several sources with knowledge of the grand jury’s work say federal prosecutors have asked many questions about Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, a Ludlow Democrat who formerly served in House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s leadership team. Petrolati was known as “the king of patronage’’ in Western Massachusetts for his ability to find probation jobs for people close to him. Petrolati’s wife is one of the agency’s managers.

Both Petrolati and his wife refused to answer Ware’s questions, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, whose office would prosecute any federal charges, has consistently declined comment about the federal grand jury’s deliberations.

However, in a potential sign of criminal charges to come, Ortiz and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley recently asked a judge to put a temporary freeze on a civil lawsuit filed against the Probation Department over its hiring practices so that it would not conflict with their criminal investigations.

On Oct. 4, Ortiz and Coakley asked a federal judge to delay the lawsuit by the National Association of Government Employees “pending a resolution of the criminal investigations and any resulting prosecutions.’’

The prosecutors are concerned about possible disclosures in the civil litigation that could hurt their case. Defense lawyers are concerned about maintaining their clients’ right to take the Fifth in criminal proceedings.

Petrolati’s lawyer, John Pucci, declined to comment.

In disciplining his managers, Corbett said that they could still face further disciplinary action depending on what information comes out from the criminal investigations.

Scott Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.