Probation report stirs concern in Dot precincts

The release of an independent report ordered up by the Supreme Judicial Court alleging corruption and widespread mismanagement within the state Probation Department has evoked cautious expressions of concern among local lawmakers and incoming state legislators.

“I think we will take action in the new year,” said state Rep. Marty Walsh (D-Dorchester). “It’s something you can’t jump at. You have to put the right solutions in place.”

The report concluded that the hiring and promotions processes are filled with “systemic abuse and corruption.” The Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight team sparked the independent investigation with a series of articles earlier this year.

The report noted that the Legislature took hiring power away from judges and gave it to Probation Commissioner John O’Brien of Dorchester in 2001, with the backing of then- House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a Mattapan Democrat.

According to the report, “the hiring and promotion process within the Probation Department during Commissioner O’Brien’s tenure, and particularly since the Commissioner was granted statutory authority with respect to hiring and promotion in 2001, has not been intended to select the most qualified individual for each position solely on the basis of merit. Instead, hiring and promotion have been thoroughly compromised by a systemic rigging of the interview and selection process in favor of candidates who have political or other personal connections.”

Paul Ware, the court-appointed investigator who wrote the report, stated that he was unable to directly link lawmakers to the alleged hiring and promotion abuses. But his report included the names of many current and former lawmakers who frequently supported candidates for jobs within the agency, through “sponsor lists” maintained by the agency’s staffers and obtained by Ware.

The list of the ten most-frequent sponsors included state Sen. Jack Hart, who represents Dorchester and South Boston. Hart was also among ten legislators who appear on a list of the twenty most-frequent recipients of contributions from Probation Department employees since 2000.

“Independent Counsel did not uncover direct evidence that legislators were explicitly offering to sponsor candidates in exchange for campaign contributions, but there is statistical evidence that pay for play was the reality,” Ware wrote.

Hart supported 21 candidates, with 9 of them receiving jobs, according to the report. Hart did not respond to a request for comment this week.

Walsh said that some of the numbers were not laid out in a clear manner, and that lawmakers frequently write letters of recommendation for individuals. “My job is to try to help people,” Walsh said, adding that his office frequently gets calls from people looking for help with housing and jobs.

“I would not write a letter or make a phone call if a person wasn’t qualified,” he said. “There clearly were abuses in that office,” Walsh said of the Probation Department, adding that some in the state House of Representatives took advantage of the situation.

State Rep.-elect Russell Holmes (D-Mattapan) said he spent the weekend reading the report and called it “pretty solid.” He called for probation reform, saying the report data showed a correlation between those who gave money, contributed money, and were recommended. “The hiring within the department has to be merit-based,” he said.

Holmes, who also works as a financial planner for Ameriprise, said the report is a frequent topic of discussion around the office. “As I leave my office now, I’ve been asked about it today,” he said.

“The report obviously merits our attentionin the Legislature and I know that’s something we’ll be focusing on,” added state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat who is married to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry.

Walsh, Holmes, and Forry would not say whether Rep. Thomas Petrolati, a Ludlow Democrat whom The Boston Globe called a “king of patronage” in western Massachusetts, should stay on as a member of House leadership appointed by Speaker Robert DeLeo.

“It’s not my call,” Walsh said.

On Tuesday, after the Reporter went to press early because of the Thanksgiving holiday, DeLeo announced that Petrolati would not be seeking re-appointment as House Speaker Pro Tempore when the new legislative session starts next year.

DeLeo said in a statement the independent counsel's report was "severe, significant and disturbing." He added that he would lead Probation Department reforms in the new year.

Carlos Henriquez, who will start his first term as a state representative of the Fifth Suffolk District in January, said on Monday he is still reading the 337-page report. “We need to make sure the public trust is protected,” he said.

Asked about Petrolati, he said, “It’s innocent until proven guilty.”

Finneran refused to cooperate with the independent investigation, as did Petrolati and Commissioner O’Brien.

The report notes that Finneran invoked his Fifth Amendment and Article 12 rights. The report says he and Petrolati were “two key legislators involved in budgeting for Probation and who sponsored candidates for hiring and promotion.”

While in office as a state representative, Finneran represented parts of Dorchester and Mattapan. A Mattapan resident, he is a lobbyist and a radio show host on WRKO.

On his radio show the morning after the report was released, Finneran defended his decision to stay quiet, saying most attorneys say there is no obligation to testify.

“[B]y experience, I’ve seen how words can be twisted and tortured to reach a particular end or result,” Finneran said, in an apparent reference to how he got into trouble with federal prosecutors over obstruction of justice charges in a case involving the House’s redistricting efforts.

Finneran said listeners of his should “react whichever way you feel” toward the report. “But temper it in this way. It is a -– I’m not going to say one-sided report –- it’s a report based on testimony or evidence which has not been tested,” he said. "It has not been questioned by anybody,there’s been no cross-examination, you have no idea of the various motives of the people who are involved.”

Finneran sought to redirect the discussion towards a “power struggle” between various branches of government over control of the Probation Department. “The judiciary would like to have sole and exclusive control over its budget and the hiring within, and the executive and legislative branches have some problems with that,” Finneran said. “They think there should be a balance on that. Anybody who’s familiar with the history of the judiciary, and their management of their own operations, including information technology monies and a whole host of other things –- I don’t like to use the word corruption, you know that. So I shy away from it, I don’t have a basis for stating to you it’s a corrupt organization or a corrupt branch. I don’t think that’s the case. But they are inept for sure.”

The full report is available at mass.gov/courts/sjc/.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

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