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Senate tackles state job patronage

Probation scandal fuels bill to limit politics in hiring

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 20, 2011

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Stung by a widespread patronage scandal in the state Probation Department, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously approved a bill yesterday designed to limit the influence of political connections in obtaining state jobs.

The 39-to-0 vote came just eight days after a similar bill passed the House — swift movement by Beacon Hill standards — as lawmakers continue trying to distance themselves from reports that legislators had made frequent calls to help land probation jobs for friends and associates. It also came as the corruption trial of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi provides daily reminders of the seamier side of Beacon Hill.

The unanimous passage of similar measures in House and Senate ensures that lawmakers have the votes to reject Governor Deval Patrick’s effort to take over the troubled Probation Department. Both bills would leave the department under the control of judges, provide a professional manager to oversee it, and add several hiring procedures intended to create a more open process.

“You can’t legislate integrity,’’ Senate President Therese Murray said. “But you can do the best you can to put rules and guidelines in place that are going to make people follow the rules.’’

Patrick’s public safety secretary, Mary Beth Heffernan, said in a statement yesterday that she had yet to review the full bill. She praised the Senate for hiring and management changes it approved, but said that, overall, the measure falls short. “Unfortunately, the bill does not deal with the systemic lack of accountability at the Probation Department, nor does it move Massachusetts toward a more comprehensive reentry system,’’ she wrote.

Senators discussed the measure for about 90 minutes yesterday afternoon. But there was no dispute over the bill’s key provisions, which had been hashed out over the last year as the festering problems in the Probation Department were revealed in a Globe series and then in an independent report ordered by the court. “For far too long, we’ve had a system that has a cloud above it, a cloud where undue political influence has been allowed to participate,’’ said Senator Bruce E. Tarr of Gloucester, the Republican minority leader.

Senators made no mention of their own role in recommending job candidates for the department, instead emphasizing actions taken since the scandal to professionalize the department.

“I am confident that, by passing this bill, we can put the scandal of the Probation Department behind us and, once again, as we did previously, lead the nation in this very important criminal justice area,’’ said Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat.

The professional manager job created as part of the plan would report to the Supreme Judicial Court and supervise noncourt functions, such as reviewing and approving the hiring of nonjudicial employees, overseeing appropriations and expenditures, and negotiating contracts and leases. The bill would also create a standard test for job candidates to weed out those who cannot meet minimum qualifications before they reach the interview stage. Though the Probation Department is the intended target of state and federal investigations related to widespread hiring abuses, some elements of the legislation affect all of state government.

The bill requires all applicants for state jobs to disclose the names of immediate family members who are state employees and mandates that all recommendations for candidates who get jobs be put in writing and be made public for successful candidates, whether they come from lawmakers or others. It also requires that those letters be considered only after candidates are vetted and make it to the final stage in the hiring process.

Patrick, too, has proposed putting a professional manager in charge of probation. But he has argued that it makes sense to put the department under his authority because he already controls the Parole Board, which has overlapping responsibilities. His administration also said it believes that the executive branch is more accountable than the judicial branch, in which judges are appointed, not elected, and generally not subject to open records laws.

Legislators, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and judges, including Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland of the Supreme Judicial Court, say that judges need to work together with probation officers and that probation can be fixed without turning over power to the governor.

Senator Michael R. Knapik, a Westfield Republican, said other state government agencies may be ripe for a similar overhaul.

“Probation is not alone in perhaps the need to take a look at management practices and accountability,’’ he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.