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Treasurer says patronage hires at liquor agency to get ‘fair shot’

By Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / July 19, 2011

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Massachusetts Treasurer Steven Grossman said he has no plans to fire patronage hires at the state liquor control agency - as long as they perform their job satisfactorily.

Grossman, responding to revelations by the Globe that the agency defended a discrimination complaint by claiming it had to hire relatives of state legislators or lose funding for the positions, vowed future employees at the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission would be hired solely on merit.

But the treasurer, who took office six months ago and oversees the agency, said he would give all 23 current employees the opportunity to prove themselves.

He said he didn’t know how many were patronage hires and had no plans to try to find out.

“I’m trying to take everyone on face value,’’ Grossman said. “We will give everyone a fair shot at demonstrating that they are capable of doing distinguished work regardless of how they arrived.’’

The Globe, citing legal documents, reported yesterday that the liquor commission used a novel defense to a discrimination complaint filed by a black Marine veteran, Ronald Bridges, who was repeatedly passed over for investigatory jobs in 2001 and 2002.

The agency claimed it wasn’t racial or age discrimination that kept the 57-year-old Bridges from winning one of two open positions, but rather patronage.

The agency argued that “the two positions would not have been funded by the Legislature, had it not hired the two politically sponsored candidates,’’ according to the MCAD ruling.

Specifically, the liquor commission hired Jamie Binienda (the son of state Representative John J. Binienda, a Worcester Democrat) and Jan Kujawski (brother of Representative Paul Kujawski, a Webster Democrat voted out of office in November), according to documents filed in the case.

Both Binienda and Kujawski still work at the agency, and declined to comment. Binienda earned $91,016 last year and Kujawski earned $87,415, including overtime, according to state payroll records. Both receive a base salary of just over $72,000.

Representative Binienda and former representative Kujawski did not respond to requests for comment.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo yesterday called the Globe’s report “disturbing’’ and planned to ask Grossman about it this week, according to a spokesman. Senate President Therese Murray told reporters she too wanted more information on the case.

“I would like to know why a case like that was settled and we paid money for them to give that kind of an answer or to use that kind of excuse for not hiring somebody,’’ Murray said.

Despite the patronage defense, the MCAD ruled against the liquor agency, which ended up settling the case in 2009 for $324,000, including legal fees.

It was one of three major employment cases the liquor control agency has resolved over the past two years at a cost of $1.7 million, nearly equal to the agency’s $2 million annual budget.

State government watchdogs and employment attorneys said they couldn’t think of other examples in which a government agency in Massachusetts admitted to patronage hiring to fight a discrimination complaint or lawsuit.

“That is an extraordinary admission,’’ said Steve Poftak, research director at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston nonprofit research institute that tracks state government. “It feels like the Probation Department on a smaller scale.’’

A Globe Spotlight series last year found that more than 250 employees of the state Probation Department have personal connections to politicians and court officials, or made significant donations to state lawmakers.

Poftak said he agreed with Grossman’s decision to retain current liquor commission employees, so long as they are qualified and performing their job satisfactorily. Poftak said it would be too messy to try to sort through all the past hires.

Grossman said he has confidence in the current team, which oversees more than 22,000 liquor stores, bars, restaurants, wholesalers, and suppliers. In 2008, the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association named the agency the enforcement agency of the year.

In the future, Grossman said, his office will not accept unsolicited recommendations from legislators and other officials unless submitted in writing, where they will be available under state public records law.

And, Grossman said, his office won’t consider the letters until the final stage of the hiring process.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com