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Audit: Mass. spent $48M on legal aid without proof

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / December 19, 2011
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BOSTON—Massachusetts has spent nearly $48 million on free legal services for the poor without verifying whether those making the claims are truly indigent, according to a new report released Monday by state Auditor Suzanne Bump.

The report looks at the Office of the Commissioner of Probation, the agency responsible for verifying that a person claiming to be poor meets the definition established by the Supreme Judicial Court to be eligible for free legal services.

Bump's review of fiscal year 2010 records at 27 of the state's 70 district courts found what she called "near total noncompliance with the indigency verification laws, rules, and regulations."

None of the 27 courts performed any verification of documentation at an applicant's initial screening.

In the sample of cases pulled from these courts, only 1.7 percent contained adequate documentation that court officials performed a required 60-day reassessment, and less than 1 percent had any evidence that a required six-month reassessment had been conducted.

The report also found that probation employees at 18 of the 27 district courts said their courts routinely don't verify any information provided by defendants. The employees also said the courts don't conduct the required reassessments.

"The public has no assurance that district court defendants are properly contributing to the costs of their legal representation," said Bump.

Bump said that since the deficiencies identified in the audit existed in all of the reviewed courts, it's reasonable to question the entire $82.3 million the state spent during fiscal year 2010 to aid clients at all 70 district courts statewide.

Acting Probation Commissioner Ronald Corbett Jr. said the agency has already taken steps to correct the problem.

Those steps include mandatory retraining for all chief probation officers and internal performance audits of local court compliance with indigency requirements.

The agency also launched a three-month study in October in Middlesex Superior Court, Worcester and Stoughton District Courts and Berkshire Juvenile Court to examine and assess the best methods to verify whether a defendant should qualify for legal aid.

Corbett said Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government is helping with the study, which should be wrapped up in early 2012.

Finally, Corbett said the agency has signed an agreement with the state Departments of Revenue and Transitional Assistance allowing the probation department to gain electronic access to data to help speed the verification process.

Massachusetts is one of 23 states that administer and fund all legal defense services for the poor at the state level.

The report is the latest spotlight on the probation department that has been the focus of ongoing patronage and campaign finance investigations.

In September, former probation commissioner, John O'Brien, and the chief of staff to former state Treasurer Timothy Cahill pleaded not guilty to charges they conspired to organize a campaign fundraiser for Cahill in exchange for securing a job for O'Brien's wife.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said at the time that the indictments stemmed from an ongoing investigation of the probation department's hiring practices and other public integrity matters.

O'Brien was at the center of an investigation by the state Supreme Judicial Court into the department's hiring and promotion policies. The court oversees the department.

A report on the court investigation conducted by independent counsel Paul Ware concluded there was apparently "an understanding" between O'Brien and certain lawmakers linking generous appropriations for the department to O'Brien's willingness to give jobs to applicants recommended by the lawmakers.

O'Brien was suspended from his post and later resigned.

A bill signed into law last month by Gov. Deval Patrick created a standard hiring process for all court and probation officers.

Under the law, a newly created civilian court administrator will be responsible for reviewing and approving the hiring of non-judicial employees, administering appropriations and expenditures, negotiating contracts and leases, and other administrative functions.

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