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When is patronage a crime?

The ongoing federal court trial of the state’s former commissioner of probation and two associates highlights the extent to which patronage influences the hiring of state workers. Since patronage is an inevitable part of the political process, it raises the question of the degree to which it will be tolerated.

There is nothing wrong with public officials recommending candidates for jobs so long as that person is qualified, the job is necessary, and the unconnected are given fair consideration. One should not assume that a sponsored candidate is by definition unqualified; often they are excellent. Even so, the appearance of favoritism is a problem.

Before the hiring and promotion authority was re-concentrated in the office of the commissioner of probation, it was dispersed among the presiding justices of the various courts. Judges made the appointments and promotions subject to standards and a selection process. To deny that patronage played a role in that system is nonsense.

Politicians, judges, and others recommended candidates for positions and sometimes jobs were created by the Legislature with the expectation that certain candidates would be given favorable consideration. Having the appointment process so widely dispersed made patronage cumbersome, so legislation was enacted taking the appointments away from the judges and concentrating the power in the commissioner’s office. Unfortunately, leaders of the Trial Court did nothing to oppose the change.

Thus, patronage was streamlined by in effect creating a clearinghouse in one person for all probation department appointments and promotions, subject to a process the Trial Court had created to promote fairness. A new, compliant commissioner became the conduit for appointments. However, Trial Court regulations required him to select from a handful of finalists who had survived a screening process.
Instead of using that process to insulate himself from undue pressure, the commissioner compromised it, thereby assuring that the “right” candidate emerged as a finalist.

He was under enormous pressure from legislators, appointed officials, and others to obtain positions for family members, friends, and constituents. When no jobs were available, the department’s budget was increased to create new positions, often without regard to the need.

The commissioner and his staff were whipsawed between a desire to respond to influential sponsors and a selection procedure meant to narrow the candidates to only those most qualified. The resulting conflict of interest was a serious problem: A commissioner beholden to legislative leaders for his own job and the department’s budget having to contend with administrative safeguards designed to assure fairness in the selection process.

Was it possible to meet the demands of those sponsoring candidates within the context of a process designed to at least discourage patronage? Arguably, the commissioner had been placed in an impossible position where the pressure for jobs (not only from legislators but also on occasion from judges) trumped the Trial Court safeguards. On a smaller scale, patronage reflects a dilemma affecting governance in our democracy: When influence and power so often overwhelm the common good in determining public policy.

A jury will now have to decide if the commissioner’s actions were criminal or if he and his associates were merely caught up in the age-old struggle between politics and prudence. It is naive to think that contributions to political campaigns are not motivated by self-interest. Elected officials are pressured for jobs and, in turn, may pressure hiring authorities.

What is needed to at least insulate elected officials to some degree from such pressures is a process by which they can honestly say their power to influence appointments is limited by statute, rules, and/or regulations. It is one thing to say “I can get you an interview, but after that you’re on your own” and another to imply retribution to the hiring office if the job is not forthcoming.

Strictly on the merits is an elusive goal in politics, business, and education. Influence in politics is obviously pervasive. Courts, in their adjudicative function, probably come as close as we get to deciding on the merits. Strict ethical standards govern judicial behavior.

When does influence become criminal? Normally it is when the person influenced receives some direct personal benefit – money, gifts, or favors. Is distorting the process to accommodate a patron enough, or is that just “politics”?