A Boston GLOBE EDITORIAL
"The courts better themselves"
March 4, 2008
NOT so long ago, a visit to a Massachusetts courthouse was like a visit to a musty 19th-century relic. But the state judicial system has been wrenching itself almost into the 21st century because of the work of its staff, the leadership of its chief justice, and the advice of a special committee, which released a pivotal report in 2003. A celebration of its fifth anniversary last week was welcome evidence that an essential government institution can improve itself, if it has the will.
The committee, headed by former Boston College president J. Donald Monan, realized that much of the responsibility for court problems rested with the Legislature, which insisted on a fragmented organizational chart and the ability to make patronage appointments to court staffs. But the committee came to understand that, with the right leadership, the courts could make progress on their own. The Supreme Judicial Court, overseer of the state judiciary, responded in 2003 by appointing Robert Mulligan, a veteran Superior Court judge, as the chief administrative justice.
Since then, Mulligan and his management team studied the workflow in every courthouse in the state. They set performance goals for the courts - maintaining, for instance, that a robbery suspect should be tried within 180 days of arraignment - and created an evaluation process for judges.
The result has been more uniform staffing levels throughout the system. Holyoke District Court had 61 percent of the needed staff early in 2005; today it has 81 percent. Worcester Superior Court had 56 percent in 2005, now that figure has risen to 76 percent. And Framingham District Court had an overly generous 118 percent in 2005: That has been lowered to 88 percent.
Improvements in staffing, information technology, and other areas have reduced the number of cases that remain unresolved past the time limits set by the new standards. That figure stood at 73,580 on Jan. 1, far from perfect, but a great improvement over the 177,129 delayed cases on Jan. 1, 2006.
Authoritative confirmation of this success has come from the National Center for State Courts, in Williamsburg, Va., which is giving Mulligan its 2008 Distinguished Service Award.
Mulligan's term expires in October, and he hasn't said whether he will accept reappointment. Margaret Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, told the Globe last week that she is confident the judiciary has other competent managers.
Some obstacles remain, though: The Legislature still approves individual line items for individual courts and gives judicial administrators limited flexibility to move money around. Lawmakers would be wise to give the courts the power to complete their campaign for excellence.
"SJC rejects challenge to law in nudity case"
The Boston Globe Online, April 11, 2008
The state's highest court has rejected a challenge to the state's open and gross lewdness law brought by lawyers for a woman who was charged with the crime for allegedly dancing nude during a protest in Harvard Square. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled yesterday that the law is a "legitimate content neutral restriction on expressive activity." The woman was arrested during an anti-Christmas protest, which takes place every year on June 25. A District Court Judge had allowed her motion to dismiss the case after finding that the state's open and gross lewdness law was an unconstitutional "blanket prohibition against public nudity." But the SJC concluded that the lower court erred, noting that previous court decisions had narrowed the application of the law so it doesn't prohibit protected expressive conduct (allowing, for example, nude go-go dancing in bars). The court sent the case, Commonwealth v. Ria Ora, back to the lower court for further proceedings.
"Lynch to be sworn as appeals court's first female chief judge"
The Associated Press, Monday, June 16, 2008
BOSTON (AP) — A trailblazing federal jurist will become the first female chief judge of the Boston-based First Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sandra Lynch is scheduled to be sworn in today as the first woman to head the court in the post's 60-year history.
Lynch succeeds Chief Judge Michael Boudin, who has served as the court's executive officer since 2001 and will continue hearing cases.
Firsts are nothing new for Lynch, who became the first — and still only — female judge to sit on the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lynch was appointed a federal judge in 1995 by President Clinton.
A BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL
"Too many courthouses"
May 29, 2009
THE STATE of Maryland, roughly equal in population and size to Massachusetts, manages to deliver justice with about half the 106 courthouses found here. Tradition and politics, not caseloads, often explain the existence of sundry courthouses. And it is proving to be an unsupportable model. It is time to determine the number and location of courthouses that can be closed or merged without interfering unduly with access to justice, especially when budget cuts are leading to inadequate staffing and curtailed sessions in the busier courts.
Five years ago, the state court system was "mired in managerial confusion," according to a special commission appointed by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Supreme Judicial Court. Caseloads were flat from 1992 to 2004, while costs and personnel spiked. Significant improvements have taken place since then under the supervision of Robert Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management of the trial courts. Last year, these courts disposed of 89 percent of their cases within accepted time standards - an improvement over 74 percent in 2006. Improved case management and a hiring freeze in October 2008 have led to greater accountability and efficiencies.
But the sheer number of courthouses limits the savings. Mulligan has moved to close or consolidate just four courts in the past five years - Ipswich, Ware, Winchendon, and the juvenile court in Lawrence. There are other good candidates. And as cash-strapped state officials contemplate closing facilities ranging from State Police barracks to mental health institutions, he acknowledges that courts can't get a pass.
"We can't sustain that number of courthouses," says Mulligan. "There's no question about it."
Candidates for mergers
Right now Mulligan is looking mainly at the roughly 40 leased courthouses in a trial court system that includes district, superior, probate, juvenile, housing, and land courts. His first priority is to reduce the $38.5 million spent annually for rent and upkeep. But the system needs to be analyzed broadly to determine if the workloads in the state's 62 district courts, whether housed in leased or state-owned space, support their existence.
Is it necessary, for example, to operate district courts in Orleans, Barnstable, and Falmouth on Cape Cod? Could courthouse operations in Pittsfield, Great Barrington, or North Adams be consolidated into two facilities in the western part of the state? The jurisdiction of the trial court trumps county lines, so why not operate a single courthouse for Brookline and Newton, where court personnel dealt with a combined total of fewer than 2,000 criminal filings last year?
In 2007, a large new courthouse opened in Worcester within reasonable driving distance to the district courts in Clinton and Uxbridge, each of which dealt with only about 2,000 criminal filings in 2008. And what of the Natick court, which dealt with only 1,151 such complaints? Couldn't that business be conducted in Framingham? The list goes on.
In 2003, the Romney administration floated a trial balloon to scrap a court system it called "frozen in the horse-and-buggy era." Legal advisers proposed closing eight district courts and establishing a system of regional justice centers where most residents would live within a radius of 15 miles from a courthouse. It didn't fly, especially when the administration targeted the underutilized Charlestown courthouse in the home district of Representative Eugene O'Flaherty, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. O'Flaherty now says legislators will fight just as hard to retain the courts in their districts. And state lawmakers control the judiciary's budget.
A model from the military
The situation calls for an independent evaluation similar to the nonpartisan federal base-closing commission that analyzed the efficiency and geographic distribution of military facilities. Such an effort would bump up against a long history of patronage hiring in the courts and dozens of statutorily-created clerk magistrate positions with lifetime appointments. It would be a sensible task for the state's independent Court Management Advisory Board, which includes business and government leaders. Other possibilities include bar associations, law schools, or research institutes. Such an undertaking could have national significance. Currently, there are no standards on how many courthouses are needed to serve a population or geographic area, according to the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts.
Meanwhile, budget writers in the Legislature will need to deal with the uneven distribution of resources in the court system. Mulligan says that some courts are facing drastic delays in updating child-support orders, processing small-claims cases, and other civil matters. The problem is particularly acute at the understaffed land court, where foreclosure cases now take six months instead of the usual six weeks.
The courthouse on Main Street may not be obsolete. But in an age of modern communication and transportation, it is fair to ask just how much public funding is needed to support such structures.
A BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL
"At state probation office, lack of oversight is bad news"
December 7, 2009
THE MASSACHUSETTS Probation Office is in heavy need of supervision itself. Money pours like a sieve through the agency. But information is tightly controlled. This dangerous combination requires the immediate attention of the Massachusetts Trial Court, which has at least nominal authority over the probation office.
There are clear signs of trouble. Last week, a former accounting clerk was arraigned on charges that she stole more than $2 million from the Lawrence District Court’s branch of the Probation Department over a three-year period. Separately, a Boston Foundation study revealed that spending in the state’s Probation Department had jumped an astronomical 163 percent from 1998 to 2008, vastly outstripping the increases for prisons and parole.
The stakes are high, both for the 258,000 convicted offenders under the supervision of the Probation Department and for the public, whose safety depends on the quality of the operation. The Legislature has been uncommonly kind to the Probation Department budget. It would be nice to think such generosity reflects the role probation can play in reducing the prison population while letting offenders redeem themselves through restitution and fines. But patronage and cronyism likely play as big a role.
That was evident in 2001 when lawmakers undermined a chief justice of the Trial Court who showed more interest in hiring qualified probation officers than in job recommendations from state lawmakers. The Legislature passed a budget rider that gave the commissioner of probation, not judges, the last word on hiring.
Even before that, the agency was well insulated from outside pressure. A decade earlier, lawmakers gave the commissioner of probation an unlimited term. In contrast, the jury commissioner and the chief justices of the Trial Court serve five-year terms.
John J. O’Brien, the current commissioner of probation, has been in office since 1998, and in practice answers to no one. He shies away from the press and other scrutiny. Leonard Engel, author of the Boston Foundation report on the state correction budget, told the Globe that he “kept running up against a lack of information’’ when trying to analyze why probation’s budget had soared compared to others in the correction system. The Probation Department now insists that the 163-percent increase reflects a change in the Legislature’s accounting process, not profligate spending. But O’Brien’s reluctance to entertain questions makes this claim difficult to assess.
Unaccountable agencies have no incentive to operate efficiently or fairly. One immediate need is to determine if the alleged embezzlement scheme exposed any of the probationers in Lawrence District Court to defaults, extra fines, or even imprisonment. Next, efforts must be made to determine if the loose accounting practices and supervisory failures in Lawrence exist in any of the probation offices of other district, juvenile, or family courts.
That could be a task for the independent Court Management Advisory Board, which advises the court system on administrative and management functions. The board should also take an honest look at whether the probation office would function better under the Executive Office of Public Safety, which already oversees the state prisons and parole functions.
No matter what, the probation office can’t be allowed to operate in the shadows any longer. Such conditions open the door to schemes that deplete the department’s assets and undermine confidence in its ability to keep the public safe.
"Patrick aims to take over Probation Department: Rising budget, patronage, and insularity cited by critics"
By Thomas Farragher and Scott Allen, Boston Globe Staff, January 24, 2010
Governor Deval Patrick, in his new budget this week, will seek to wrest control of one of the fastest-growing but most secretive state agencies, taking direct charge of the probation officers who supervise criminals when they serve their sentences outside a prison cell.
Patrick’s proposal would largely remove the Probation Department from the court system, where, critics say, it has become a backwater of patronage jobs and bloated budgets, operating mostly independent of other public safety agencies.
It also has been buffeted by a corruption investigation after the indictment of a probation clerk last month for allegedly embezzling $2 million.
Patrick’s move sets up an election year showdown with the Legislature, which has strongly supported longtime Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien. The Legislature twice overrode attempts by Patrick to cut probation’s budget last November and, in 2005, took away the trial courts’ authority to transfer money from probation to other parts of the system.
Since O’Brien took office in 1998, state spending on probation has grown several times more rapidly than prisons, courts, and other public safety agencies, according to state budget figures.
“We need to make probation a part of a unified system,’’ said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to comment before the budget was released.
Patrick believes the state can save at least $40 million by consolidating prisons, probation, and the parole board under one office in the executive branch.
“Right now, that efficiency doesn’t exist,’’ the official said. “There will be strong political pushback. But no state does it like we do.’’
Yesterday, O’Brien said he wants control over his department to stay within the courts. “We are guided by judicial rules, rules of the court and many policies that make probation an essential element of the judicial process,’’ he said in a written statement.
Massachusetts runs one of the largest probation programs in the country, according to Justice Department statistics, overseeing an estimated 180,000 people who have been convicted of an offense but are allowed to serve at least part of the sentence in the community. On a per capita basis, only two states, Georgia and Idaho, have a larger probation population.
But probation officials here provide far less information about their work than their counterparts in other states. For instance, unlike 32 states, O’Brien’s office doesn’t report to the Justice Department how many people commit additional crimes while they’re on probation, even though in 2007, two Massachusetts probationers committed murders in Washington state and Florida.
Probation officials say they collect comprehensive data - they say crime by probationers is dropping - but that their statistics are not tallied precisely the way the Justice Department prefers.
Patrick administration officials and other agencies that deal with the department complain that it should not be so difficult to get basic answers from probation, which has an annual budget of about $150 million.
“You get the impression that whatever you ask, the first answer is ‘no’ and the second answer is, ‘never,’ ’’ said Lael Chester, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, an advocacy group, and a member of a state advisory panel that has sought data from probation. “They say, ‘It’s confidential.’ How can the number of kids being arraigned be confidential?’’
O’Brien, 52, a career probation official who lives in Quincy, generally avoids publicity, issuing written statements rather than talking to reporters, while working behind the scenes to build alliances with key politicians. For instance, 19 probation employees each donated $100 to the campaign of state Treasurer Tim Cahill at one 2005 event.
Probation officials have also donated thousands of dollars to legislative allies of the department, such as state Representative Thomas Petrolati and state Senator Steven Baddour. Petrolati’s wife helps supervise the electronic monitoring bracelet program overseen by probation. Baddour’s wife is an associate probation officer.
But recent events have drawn O’Brien - who declined Globe requests for interviews - into an unaccustomed public role.
First, the Boston Foundation released a report in early December concluding that probation’s budget had grown a stunning 163 percent from 1998 to 2008. The growth rate, adjusted for inflation, was eight times faster than any other public safety agency over the same period. The Legislature did cut probation’s budget last year but not by as much as Patrick wanted, restoring $4.4 million that the governor had vetoed.
In a rare public response, O’Brien rejected the foundation’s findings as “convoluted mathematical calculations’’ that failed to consider a 2004 change in the budget process that made probation spending look greater than it is.
“I am disappointed that we had no opportunity to review the report in its draft form nor prior to its release to correct many inaccuracies contained therein,’’ he wrote.
However, the report’s author, Len Engel of Community Resources for Justice, says he did account for the budget process change O’Brien cited. And he said that despite repeated attempts, he did not receive key data he sought from the Probation Department. Patrick administration officials say Engel’s figures are accurate.
Meanwhile, the early December indictment of probation clerk Marie Morey on embezzlement charges raised serious questions about the way probation handles money. Morey allegedly stole $2 million over a three-year period from the department office in Lawrence where, prosecutors say, she used bookkeeping tricks to hide her vast theft.
State Auditor Joseph DeNucci had given probation a stark warning about Morey’s “questionable’’ bookkeeping in July 2007. DeNucci’s routine review found that Morey made lots of errors and revised her books six times after the auditor began asking questions. But, according to the indictment against Morey, she continued to steal an average of $12,000 a week for a year and a half after DeNucci’s report.
O’Brien laid the blame partly on the chief probation officer at the Lawrence court, George Corkery, who retired shortly after Morey was arrested.
But the Lawrence probation office was only one of 10 that DeNucci has criticized for lax money-handling practices over the past three years, raising questions about whether probation has a much broader vulnerability to theft.
Patrick’s attempt to place probation under the executive branch of government is the result, in part, of a growing sense of frustration among other public safety and judiciary officials that the department has become increasingly insular.
“This department has a life of its own,’’ said Michael B. Keating, chairman of a court management advisory board appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court. “It can’t be an island unto itself.’’
Massachusetts last year lost a lucrative federal grant to help offenders returning to society get housing and jobs, in part because state agencies don’t cooperate well enough, according to one official briefed on Patrick’s plan.
Under the governor’s proposal, the judicial branch would retain only the small portion of the current Probation Department responsible for family court issues.
According to an internal policy document, which analyzed the centralization plan embraced by the governor, the office of the commissioner of probation reported that it had 175,000 cases under its oversight in 2007, a number slightly less than the federal figure. But even at that lower figure, Massachusetts has a per capita probationer rate 47 percent above the national average. The policy document, obtained by the Globe, said it remains unclear how many of those cases require significant hands-on supervision.
“An accurate assessment of probation caseloads cannot be calculated,’’ the analysis states.
The administration also is taking aim at the Office of Community Corrections, a branch of probation that operates a sprawling but underutilized network of 25 centers across the state, where probationers are subject to random drug and alcohol testing and can attend classes to obtain their high school equivalency diploma.
The Community Corrections annual budget is currently $23.7 million. Yet in 2008, all 25 centers together had an average of fewer than 1,200 offenders at any given time, or an average of about 46 people in each center.
Some judges are reluctant to sentence probationers to the centers and some probation officers even discourage the judges from doing so, according to the policy brief. One reason is the highly prescriptive programming that requires the most serious offenders to spend four to six hours a day at the center, six days a week, and perform eight hours of community service a week.
“There’s no supervision by a judge over community corrections,’’ said Robert F. Kumor Jr., former first justice of the Springfield District Court, who retired last fall. “You sentence someone to community corrections, you don’t know what happens next.’’
In his letter disputing the Boston Foundation’s findings, O’Brien called the Community Corrections centers “a monumental and successful effort by Massachusetts to ensure community reintegration’’ of offenders.
Yet only 21 percent of those using the centers who took the GED exam in 2008 were awarded their diploma, the annual report said. Among the most serious offenders, about half of those who left the programs that year were removed not because they finished successfully, but because they got in more trouble with the law.
Marcella Bombardieri of the Globe staff contributed to this report. She can be reached at email@example.com. Farragher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Allen can be reached at email@example.com. The Globe would like to hear from readers with tips about the Probation Department. The telephone number is 617-929-3208. Confidential messages can also be left at 617-929-7483.
A BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL
"Rogue probation office needs real oversight"
January 27, 2010
THE PATRICK administration is getting wise to the mysterious ways of the state’s probation department. And the more light that falls on this backstairs agency, the more obvious the need for changes in both its leadership and organizational structure.
The Office of the Commissioner of Probation is currently under the supervision of the state’s court system, but only in the loosest sense. In 2001, the Legislature stripped judges of the authority to hire, promote, and discipline probation officers, leaving such decisions in the hands of Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien and his staff. No matter how badly he mismanages the department, O’Brien is free to thumb his nose at the Trial Court because he serves an unlimited term, courtesy of the Legislature. And to top it all off, probation officers aren’t even required to take Civil Service examinations, unlike other public safety personnel, including parole and corrections officers.
One couldn’t design a better set-up for political patronage: A probation commissioner who is both unaccountable to the internal controls of the court system and immune, as a member of that court system, from many public-records requests. Where better for a lawmaker to drum up a job for a relative or supporter? The official job requirements for probation officer include a bachelor’s degree and one year of experience in human services. An honest list would include copious amounts of political juice.
Credit the governor for his proposal to put adult probation services under his direct oversight. Similar agencies covering the parole and corrections functions are already under the control of his Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Administration officials estimate they could save $15 million to $40 million by placing all operations, from pre-trial to post-release, under one administrative roof. The move also makes sense as criminal justice policy. The lines between probation and parole have blurred in recent years. Probation is no longer just a stay-out-of-jail card for low-level offenders. Violent offenders who leave prison are now placed under the supervision of both the probation and parole departments. One branch of government should be accountable for the entire operation, as is the case in most states.
Something has to change. Last month, a probation clerk in Lawrence was charged with embezzling $2 million from a Lawrence probation office. And a recent Boston Foundation study found that spending in the Probation Department had jumped an obscene 163 percent, adjusted for inflation, from 1998 to 2008. Commissioner O’Brien’s office insists - unpersuasively - that the increase is merely the result of “convoluted’’ accounting. Meanwhile, he doesn’t even deign to tell the Justice Department how many people commit additional crimes while on probation. He ducks questions about his touted community corrections program. And he refuses even to supply a copy of his resume upon written request.
As Patrick seeks to take over this dysfunctional agency, he needs to consider unintended consequences. It could be costly, for example, if probation officers are placed in higher pension categories with parole and correction officers. And he has to be careful not to compromise the close working relationships between judges and probation officers. On balance, however, the move appears to be sound.
Such moves require legislative approval, which should be granted.. It’s time for lawmakers to abandon their patronage playground for the higher good.
"Crackdown on probation office"
The Berkshire Eagle, Editorials, January 26, 2010
The state's immense and secretive Probation Department has resisted reform efforts over the years, all but inviting Governor Patrick's attempt to wrest control of the department from the court system and put it under his jurisdiction. The Legislature will see this as a usurpation of power by the executive branch, but if legislators had been more receptive to reform efforts this move would not have come about.
Between 1998 and 2008, the Probation Department's budget grew by an astounding 163 percent, and the department is regularly criticized for its failure to provide crime data to the Justice Department and other appropriate agencies. The department's insularity was manifested by its reluctance to takes steps against a probation clerk who has been indicted for embezzling $2 million. The department was warned about by the clerk by State Auditor Joseph DeNucci, but the clerk allegedly embezzled an average of $12,000 a week for 18 months after the warning.
Governor Patrick's attempts to even modestly trim the budget of this bloated agency have been foiled by the Legislature. He believes, according to a Boston Globe story on his proposal, that $40 million can be saved annually by consolidating prisons, probation and the parole board into one executive office. The department's argument that what we have always done can't be changed isn't enough.
A BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL
"Probation office needs fixing, not commissioner for life"
February 5, 2010
STATE PROBATION Commissioner John J. O’Brien is untouchable. Insulated by an unlimited term and allergic to scrutiny, he is the new symbol of unaccountability in Massachusetts.
The top blew off the probation department in December when a probation clerk came under suspicion for massive theft in the Lawrence office. The scandal coincided with a Boston Foundation report that cited the probation department for runaway spending. O’Brien, who communicates only via missives, staunchly defended his department’s spending practices. But few are buying it. The Patrick administration is so unimpressed that it is seeking to remove the probation department from the Trial Court, which is powerless to police O’Brien, and place it under the control of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
Under any circumstances, the Legislature should get rid of the indefinite term granted to the probation commissioner. Similar positions in the Trial Court carry 5-year terms. One explanation for why the Legislature created this exception for the probation commissioner in 1992 is that it would ensure the ongoing gratitude of a commissioner who, in turn, would be expected to provide patronage jobs at the behest of lawmakers.
Lawmakers must address gross abuses of the public trust. Last year, they dealt with the worst of the pension system, such as the so-called “king for a day’’ clause that allowed some public safety workers to earn exaggerated benefits by filing disability claims while filling in - even for one day - for a higher paid employee. King-for-a-day was bad enough. O’Brien was appointed in 1998, and current law makes him king for life.
O’Brien’s position is reminiscent of the gift bestowed by former Senate President William Bulger on his crony Francis Joyce in 1982 - lifetime tenure as head of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. It took more than 20 years and new legislation to dislodge Joyce. The public shouldn’t need to wait that long to find credible, new leadership at the probation department.
"Probation Department called ‘dysfunctional’: State panel urges judicial input on key jobs"
By Frank Phillips, Boston Globe Staff, April 26, 2010
Management of the state Probation Department is “dysfunctional’’ and lawmakers should give back to judges the power to hire and supervise key court personnel, including probation officers and assistant clerks, according to a report by a special state commission.
The Court Management Advisory Board report lands on the desks of legislative leaders just as the House begins debate on the state’s $27.8 billion budget plan for next year, but there is little indication lawmakers have any appetite for changing the system.
The House budget proposal contains language, added each year by legislative leaders, that essentially eliminates judges from having any authority over those working in the courthouses. The judiciary has presented amendments that would put the judges back in charge of court employees. The House has ignored Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to place probation under the Executive Office of Public Safety.
“The notion that legislators get involved in courthouse management is just plain bizarre,’’ said Michael B. Keating, a Boston lawyer and chairman of the advisory board. “It is unique to Massachusetts. The judiciary is meant to be an independent branch of government under our state Constitution.’’
The report by the advisory board, which was created by the Legislature and appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court, reignites a nearly decadelong debate and an often bitter struggle over management of the courts. The legislative takeover of court management, a move engineered by then-House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran in 2001, exacerbated already tense relations between the branches. But the judiciary, which depends on the Legislature for its funding levels, is in a weak position to press its case.
“No private-sector organization could ever operate within such a labyrinthine structure,’’ the report concludes.
Seth Gitell, a spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, said last week that the House leader is “focused on the major issues facing the Commonwealth’’ and had not read the advisory board report. He had no other comment on DeLeo’s position on the issue.
The commission was created after a 2003 report by a group led by the Rev. J. Donald Monan, a former president of Boston College, harshly criticized the legislative power grab. Last December, a study by the Boston Foundation said the Probation Department’s spending had grown eight times faster than any other public safety agency between 1998 and 2008.
“This is about politics and who will control the major agencies and these jobs,’’ said Scott Harshbarger, a former state attorney general and president of the board at Community Resources for Justice, an organization that conducted the Boston Foundation study. “We cannot afford to have a system that is geared to politics and patronage that is costing us hugely.’’
The Legislature, which has used the Probation Department to dole out patronage jobs to constituents, relatives, and political supporters, gave commissioner John J. O’Brien control of the agency at a time when legislators felt that the courts, which were trying to diversify the ranks of probation officers and clerks, were ignoring their demands. O’Brien, because of his close ties to lawmakers, emerged as one of the most powerful figures in the state court system.
The advisory board said that the probation caseload has been “basically flat’’ for the past five fiscal years, but the department’s staff has increased by 10 percent, and its budget by 18 percent.
“As this report was being written, the Legislature has added $4.5 million to Probation . . . while drastically cutting all other areas of the government,’’ the report states.
But O’Brien, in a letter e-mailed to the Globe, disputed the contention that his staff and budget have grown significantly. He said the increase in staff for those five years is a mere 2 percent. He said his agency’s staffing is only 69 percent of the level recommended by the National Center for State Courts and the state’s chief justice for administration and management. And he said that a state change in accounting methods is the reason it appears that his department’s funding jumped significantly.
“The actual numbers dispel the assertion that we have a ‘bloated budget,’ ’’ O’Brien said.
Community Resources for Justice stood by its findings, saying it had accounted for the changed budget process.
A report in late 2001 by the Pioneer Institute, a fiscally conservative public policy research organization, showed that the Legislature had packed the state courts during the previous four years with hundreds of patronage jobs that administrators never requested or needed, costing taxpayers $48.3 million.
A BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL
"Probation: Find the will to fix it"
April 27, 2010
State lawmakers can no longer duck their role in the creation of the state’s dysfunctional Probation Department, where one employee is under suspicion for embezzlement and many are suspected of getting their jobs through political connections. Lawmakers should heed a new report issued by the Massachusetts Court Management Advisory Board. Created by the Legislature in 2004, the board is now calling upon the governor and lawmakers to “break through the structural obstacles that are at the heart of real reform.’’
Probation comprises nearly one-third of the judiciary’s 7,000 employees, yet the chief justice of administration and management has no power to hire, promote, and discipline probation officers. That power rests in the hands of Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien, an unresponsive public manager who serves an unlimited term courtesy of the Legislature. This system is designed perfectly if the goal is for lawmakers to create a patronage colony in the Probation Department. But it’s wretched if the goal is to ensure an effective criminal-justice system and a professional management structure for the trial courts.
One way to remove the obstacles would be to place probation under the control of the Executive Office of Public Safety, similar to parole and corrections. Another would be to give the trial court the kind of centralized authority it needs to manage all of its employees and resources. Either would be preferable to today’s monkey business.
A BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL
"Petty payback on Beacon Hill"
May 12, 2010
WHEN HOUSE SPEAKER Robert DeLeo approved a budget amendment that would exile the administrator of the state court system to a run-down office in Charlestown, it wasn’t out of a sudden interest in helping the state save money.
Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management, has been at the forefront of the judiciary’s efforts to manage its own costs — which have long been subject to meddling by legislators bent on preserving public facilities and patronage opportunities in their districts. But Mulligan left himself vulnerable by maintaining his own office in space that rents for about $3 million a year.
State Representative Michael Rush seized on that, sponsoring an amendment directing Mulligan to terminate that Downtown Boston lease and move to a state-owned building in Charlestown. DeLeo tucked the measure into the House budget bill.
Never mind that the Charlestown space is far removed from the heart of the state’s judicial system and may require millions of dollars in renovations. And never mind that Rush, as the Globe reported last week, has a personal beef with Mulligan over the treatment of Rush’s father, a former probation officer in West Roxbury District Court.
This episode captures everything that’s wrong with the management of the court system in Massachusetts. Time and again, legislators have intervened in the courts for personal reasons — and in ways that have nothing to do with the efficient administration of justice. Mulligan could indeed set a good example by moving to a state-owned building. But if DeLeo and others are serious about cutting costs, they’ll give Mulligan the leeway to streamline the system without micromanagement from Beacon Hill.
SPOTLIGHT | PATRONAGE IN THE PROBATION DEPARTMENT
"An agency where patronage is job one: The state Probation Department once set the standard for the nation in rehabilitating criminals. But nine years ago the Legislature freed it from meaningful oversight, and the results were predictable: budgets soared, and the welcome mat was out for hundreds of job seekers with political juice."
By Boston Globe Staff, May 23, 2010
This story was reported by The Globe Spotlight Team, reporters Scott Allen, Marcella Bombardieri, Andrea Estes, and editor Thomas Farragher. It was written by Allen.
By any measure, Deirdre I. Kennedy was an outstanding candidate for chief probation officer at West Roxbury District Court. A Wellesley College graduate with two master’s degrees, Kennedy was a streetwise veteran of the Dorchester courthouse who spoke fluent Spanish. She was also a proven leader who had run an antidomestic violence program that won nearly $8 million in federal grants.
But, in the closed world of the Massachusetts Probation Department, dazzling credentials scarcely matter. Probation Commissioner John J. “Jack’’ O’Brien chose the 73-year-old father of a state legislator instead, doing a favor for then-House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, one of O’Brien’s key political mentors, who said he sought the promotion for James J. Rush as a “capstone’’ to the man’s 41-year probation career.
The top judge in West Roxbury warned O’Brien that Rush was not up to the task, and his two-year tenure turned out to be a fiasco. Rush clashed with five female employees who alleged that he threw tantrums, tossed papers at them, and slammed the door in one woman’s face. He abruptly retired in September 2006, leaving behind a sex and race discrimination lawsuit filed by two of the women, but taking home a boost in his pension thanks to his late-career promotion.
Rush’s quick exit gave O’Brien a second chance to take the advice of Judge Kathleen E. Coffey, who recommended Kennedy for the job. Instead, O’Brien chose another politically connected candidate: a veteran probation officer who has donated $2,100 to Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, an O’Brien ally who employs O’Brien’s wife and one of his daughters.
After 12 years in charge, Jack O’Brien has transformed the Probation Department from a national pioneer of better ways to rehabilitate criminals into an organization that functions more like a private employment agency for the well connected, the Spotlight Team has found.
O’Brien’s agency now employs at least 250 friends, relatives, and financial backers of politicians and top court officials, the Spotlight review found, including children of US Representative William D. Delahunt, former mayor Raymond L. Flynn of Boston, and former Senate president William M. Bulger. The agency has also hired House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s godson, who, at 28, is now the youngest chief probation officer in Massachusetts.
O’Brien has taken care of friends, too, finding jobs for the children of his Boston College football teammate, for a friend who ran a fur shop, for a former plasterer friendly with Cahill, and promoting two probation officers who moonlight as bartenders at a Northampton pizza joint frequented by one of his top deputies. Along the way, O’Brien’s family has also benefited.
O’Brien’s agency hired his daughter Genevieve, despite a warning that he might be violating the court system’s rules against nepotism. That gave O’Brien’s immediate family two jobs at the Probation Department, including his own, and two more under Cahill with a combined annual income of $260,000.
No legislator has reaped greater benefit from the pattern of hiring than state Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, the third-ranking House member who is regarded by many members of the Western Massachusetts legislative delegation as the “king of patronage’’ in courthouses west of Worcester. Under O’Brien, the Probation Department has provided jobs for Petrolati’s wife, a former staffer, the husband of his legislative aide, and literally dozens of Springfield-area residents who have donated money to Petrolati.
Since 2002, Petrolati has collected twice as much in campaign contributions from probation employees as any other legislator, according to campaign finance records. And O’Brien’s former deputy commissioner, William H. Burke III, planned to help Petrolati raise even more last week as master of ceremonies at his annual fund-raiser.
“Tommy can get whatever he wants as long as Tommy delivers on the budget,’’ said a Petrolati confidant who said Petrolati gets first crack at finding candidates for probation jobs throughout Western Massachusetts.
Petrolati for weeks declined requests for an interview, and went so far at one point as to evade a reporter who visited him in Ludlow. Last week, in an e-mail response to Globe questions, he denied that he has undue influence over the Probation Department, saying that he recommends only people he believes are qualified.
“All that I expect . . . is that they will do a good job,’’ wrote Petrolati. He also pointed out that he doesn’t vote on the department’s budget because his wife works for the agency.
But it’s clear that the Probation Department’s friends in the Legislature have delivered: The department’s budget grew more than 160 percent from 1998 to 2008, a period in which other public safety agencies’ spending increased by 20 percent or less, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Boston Foundation. The largesse has enabled the department to pay 79 managers at least $100,000 annually and to give pay increases in 2010 to 43 of its 100 best-paid employees amid a budget crisis.
O’Brien, who agreed to only one half-hour telephone interview with the Spotlight Team, denies that his budget has soared compared with others. He argues that changes in the court budget process in 2004 make comparisons to earlier years impossible. Since 2004, however, O’Brien’s budget has grown more than twice as fast as other court offices’.
He also says managers’ pay has been frozen since 2004. But he did not note that the freeze doesn’t apply to increases based on seniority or promotions. In fact, most managers’ pay has increased since 2004, including O’Brien’s own salary, which rose from $116,241 to $130,305.
While O’Brien’s reign has been rewarding for top legislators and his inner circle, the pervasive intrusion of politics and favoritism has, according to interviews with a broad array of Probation Department personnel, badly damaged the morale of an agency with a big job to do: supervising tens of thousands of those convicted of drunken driving, sex offenses, and other crimes who are serving their sentences in the community. A six-month investigation by the Spotlight Team also found that:
■ The department is beset by a “pay to play’’ mentality in which ambitious employees, whether qualified or not, make campaign contributions to key politicians in hopes of advancing their careers. “You’ve got to have political juice,’’ complained one probation officer who was passed over for promotion in favor of a less experienced but politically connected candidate.
Since the Legislature, at Finneran’s urging, transferred power over hiring from judges to O’Brien in 2001, Probation Department employees’ donations to legislative campaigns have more than doubled, a Spotlight Team analysis shows, rising from $23,413 in 2002 to more than $55,000 in 2008. Most of the money goes to just 10 powerful legislators, including DeLeo, Petrolati, and two others who have immediate family members working for the department.
■ Promising candidates who don’t have political connections are routinely passed over to make way for the politically wired. O’Brien, for example, didn’t promote veteran probation officer Karen Jackson to assistant chief probation officer in 2005, even though she was the unanimous first choice of a hiring committee at Milford District Court that included the local judge and Jackson’s boss, a chief probation officer. Instead, O’Brien hired the grandniece of then-State Representative Marie J. Parente.
Jackson said that when she called Parente, the lawmaker said she felt guilty to have lobbied for her relative, who initially was ranked in the middle of the pack of candidates. “The fix was in,’’ said Jackson. “If you don’t know anyone, you’re not going anywhere.’’
Parente said she has repeatedly helped Jackson throughout her career in the department. The former lawmaker said she does not recall whether she lobbied for her relative’s promotion. “I was always careful about the conflict-of-interest law,’’ Parente said. “I truly can’t remember what I did for her.’’
■ Lax oversight of the collection of fines and court costs paid by probationers has left the department, which handles more than $70 million a year in cash, vulnerable to theft. The Spotlight Team has learned that the state’s trial court, after an embezzlement scandal in the Lawrence probation office, has identified five other probation offices that have multiple deficiencies in the way they handle and account for funds. A cashier at a sixth office, in Stoughton, resigned in August after allegedly stealing thousands in court-ordered payments from offenders.
The alleged theft of $2 million from the probation office in Lawrence District Court went on for three years despite two formal warnings from outside auditors that the clerk, Marie Morey, had almost no supervision, appeared to use irregular bookkeeping methods and couldn’t explain some missing funds. Ultimately, the Administrative Office of the Trial Court — not the Probation Department — discovered the scope of the alleged crime. Morey has pleaded not guilty.
Yet the regional supervisor who oversaw the Lawrence District Court probation office, Jeffrey L. Akers, is still on the job and says he has little knowledge of the scandal. O’Brien said in a statement that he had no plans to discipline Akers because it’s up to court administrators to oversee “the financial integrity of the court.’’
Akers’s written job description, however, calls for him to provide “technical assistance’’ to Lawrence and other probation offices in “fiscal matters and personnel issues.’’ Moreover, State Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci’s scathing 2007 report finding discrepancies in Morey’s bookkeeping was addressed to probation officials, who formally promised to fix the problems.
Chief Justice Robert A. Mulligan, chief administrator of Massachusetts’ trial courts, said he is frustrated by the apparent lack of accountability by probation. “There was absolutely no oversight,’’ he said.
■ In three cases, politically connected employees with histories of alleged misconduct or sloppy work avoided serious career fallout. For example, Worcester police fruitlessly complained to O’Brien in 2008 that associate probation officer Ashley Losapio, the stepdaughter of a judge, had compromised an investigation by leaking information to criminals.
Police say Losapio admitted hanging around with “bad guys,’’ and had the telephone numbers of drug and gun suspects programmed into her cellphone. While she told police she never gave the suspects information about criminal matters, she acknowledged that she would tell them whom she saw in court.
The Worcester district attorney’s office said it found no probable cause to prosecute Losapio, but then-Detective Captain Edward J. McGinn Jr. wrote to O’Brien that “she is not a suitable person to serve this community as a probation officer.’’ McGinn said he’s never heard back from O’Brien. Since then, Losapio has been transferred. She continues to work for probation, and her pay has increased by nearly $3,000 a year.
McGinn, now Worcester’s deputy police chief, said his investigators believe Losapio continues to associate with known criminals.
“How on Monday through Friday from 8 to 4 can you sit down and try to guide a probationer, try to straighten their lives out . . . and then go run with them at night?’’ McGinn said in a recent interview.
Losapio did not respond to multiple messages left at her home and office. O’Brien’s office said the matter was “fully investigated, resulting in the appropriate action.’’
More generally, O’Brien categorically denies that politics play a role in hiring at his 2,000-plus employee agency. He asserted that everyone is hired in an open and fair manner, contending that all candidates for posted jobs go through a three-step screening process. Finalists are selected at the local level, and the top candidate is chosen by O’Brien’s office in Boston, he said, adding that his choice then must be approved by Chief Justice Mulligan, technically his boss.
But the Legislature clearly intended to give Mulligan very limited power, declaring repeatedly in the Probation Department’s budget that the commissioner has “exclusive authority to appoint, dismiss, assign and discipline probation officers.’’ Mulligan can veto O’Brien’s decisions only for limited reasons, such as failure to follow affirmative action guidelines.
Nonetheless, O’Brien contends the hiring process is collaborative. “I know of no other position in the trial court that has a more extensive interview process,’’ he said.
Reports of irregularities in the process are legion, however: the children of influential people who got jobs even though they didn’t make the list of finalists, friends and allies hired on an “acting’’ basis without a formal hiring process, job applicants with no political ties who find their interview evaluations inexplicably changed to reduce their overall ranking.
Moreover, the Spotlight Team has found a disturbing pattern in which probation officers suddenly start donating to key legislators just before or after they get a job in the department, giving the appearance that political contributions pave the path to success.
For example, Arthur Sousa of Somerville began donating to House Speaker DeLeo in April 2006 even though he didn’t live in DeLeo’s district. Since that year, he has given DeLeo $1,700, and his career has taken off: Sousa was promoted from associate to full probation officer, and his pay jumped almost $15,000 a year to $50,348. In a brief interview, Sousa claimed to be a longtime DeLeo supporter, but campaign finance records show that he had not made donations to DeLeo or other state candidates in the four years before he began giving to the speaker.
Probation employees, like all citizens, can legally give $500 a year to any politician for any reason. State law, however, forbids bosses from pressuring state employees to donate to campaigns. Harder to assess is a department like probation where there is little plain evidence of such direct pressure, but where political contributions seem closely linked, in many cases, to career advancement.
For his part, DeLeo defends the Probation Department. In an e-mailed statement, he said, “While every organization has its own flaws and weaknesses, I hear that the Probation Department is a functional organization that does a difficult job under tough conditions.’’
But others say politics and favoritism are eating away at the agency’s morale.
“Every single promotion is done by politics,’’ lamented Jack Alicandro, the recently retired president of Local 229 of the National Association of Government Employees, the union that represents probation officers. “The rule of thumb to either get hired or promoted is you had to have attended BC [O’Brien’s alma mater], worked at Suffolk County [where O’Brien once worked], or get three calls from politicians.’’
Chief Justice Mulligan has sometimes challenged O’Brien’s hiring practices, but with limited success. Mulligan warned O’Brien in 2005 that he was violating the court’s rule against employing family members by hiring his daughter as a secretary in the department’s Office of Community Corrections. But O’Brien sidestepped Mulligan by hiring Genevieve on an “acting’’ basis, for which hiring standards are less strict. In 2009, she made $44,123.
O’Brien at first wouldn’t speak to his daughter’s hiring, and his spokesman called the inquiry an “ambush question.’’ Last week, however, he said in a statement that he did not directly hire his daughter because she works in a separate division of probation from his office. He said her hiring is supported by “two ethics decisions,’’ which he did not detail.
Mulligan also tried to stop O’Brien from hiring a second child of his former Boston Col lege football teammate, Stephen Anzalone, himself a probation officer. In 2007, Mulligan discovered that six members of the Anzalone clan worked for either the Probation Department or courtroom security, though Stephen P. Anzalone Jr. had disclosed only three on his job application. Mulligan argued that he had the power to block the hire because the younger Anzalone falsified his job application.
But the younger Anzalone has waged a fight all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court to get his job, saying that Mulligan waited too long before he vetoed the offer and that he didn’t deliberately withhold information about three cousins who work for the court.
While Mulligan battles O’Brien, the Legislature has remained steadfastly supportive of the commissioner’s priorities, continuing to pump in money even as the state plunged into a budget crisis in 2009. With virtually no floor debate, the House and Senate in November restored $4.4 million in probation spending that Governor Deval Patrick had vetoed.
On the House floor, Petrolati and other O’Brien supporters celebrated their “win’’ for the Probation Department by giving one another high fives and patting each other on the back, according to one veteran legislator.
“The vote was insensitive to those forced to bear cuts not only in other court services and programs but also in public safety, local aid, and human services,’’ said state Representative John H. Rogers. “It’s an insult to every needy person out there.’’
The rules changed when O’Brien got in the game
Boston bootmaker John Augustus invented the concept of probation back in 1841 when he approached the police about taking custody of a “common drunkard’’ who he thought could be rehabilitated without sitting in a jail cell. Augustus sobered the man up, found him a job, and launched a new approach to corrections that has kept millions out of prison.
For generations, Massachusetts probation officials have taken pride in the legacy of Augustus, and, as late as the 1990s, the state continued to be a leader in guiding criminals into the mainstream. Under Commissioner Donald Cochran in the 1990s, Massachusetts probation officers developed a cutting-edge questionnaire to estimate the public danger posed by probationers. A chief aide, Ronald P. Corbett Jr., served as editor of a national journal on probation.
But in 1997, Chief Judge John J. Irwin Jr. shocked probation observers by selecting O’Brien to succeed Cochran instead of Corbett, who had just been voted national probation executive of the year by his peers. Irwin, now deceased, indicated to his staff that he wanted a more street-wise commissioner, someone who was more focused on “getting probation officers into the community’’ than producing research papers. Who better than Jack O’Brien, then running a new program that set up community-based offices where probationers could go for services ranging from drug-testing to basic education?
As O’Brien, who had also served 15 years in the trenches as a probation officer, said in a rare interview with his hometown newspaper back in 1998, “You have to be out there to be effective.’’
But O’Brien also had the political pedigree for Beacon Hill success: He played football in the late 1970s for Boston College, Irwin’s alma mater, and grew up in Dorchester, not far from former speaker Finneran. Irwin liked the former BC athlete enough to make him the court’s legislative liaison years before he named O’Brien commissioner. At the State House, O’Brien played up his ties to the powerful Finneran. An inside player was born.
As commissioner, O’Brien began filling top jobs with former colleagues from Suffolk Superior Court, while hiring friends and family of the influential for entry-level jobs. The rules changed in other ways, too.
That was underscored by the case of Alfred E. “Alf’’ Barbalunga, the son of a Pittsfield judge said to be friendly with O’Brien. In 1999, Barbalunga came under fire for poor job performance as a probation officer in the district court in North Adams, according to several sources with direct knowledge of the situation. Among the complaints against the younger Barbalunga was that he wasn’t always showing up for work, the sources said.
One judge recommended Barbalunga be fired, but the judge overseeing an investigation recommended a severe sanction short of dismissal, according to the sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the personnel proceedings were confidential.
In the end, Barbalunga received no discipline at all. And when a slot opened in 2002 for chief probation officer at the district court in Great Barrington, O’Brien gave him the promotion. Today, he makes $102,946 a year, more than twice the income he earned when he was investigated.
In an interview, Barbalunga denied that his work ethic was the central focus of the investigation. He gave the Globe a list of court references, including a former judge who said he is a solid worker.
“That was a very unfortunate time,’’ Barbalunga said. “I think I’ve done an outstanding job.’’
After O’Brien’s appointment in 1997, legislative leaders appreciated the commissioner’s attentiveness to their hiring suggestions. But they remained frustrated that probation officers assigned to the courts had to be approved by local judges. Finneran, in an interview, said the process needed to be streamlined, and he pushed through a bill in late 2001 centralizing hiring and promotion decisions in O’Brien’s office. Finneran knew that might increase the number of political hires. That’s not always bad, he said.
“You don’t want to bring someone in who is inept or has a bad attitude,’’ the former speaker explained. “If you scan a list of probation officers, there might be sons and daughters of politicians and judges there. That’s not going to go away. And, honestly, I don’t think it should. They shouldn’t be excluded because of the achievements of their parents.’’
O’Brien’s new power to hire and fire made it easier for politicians to advocate in favor of particular candidates, and some legislators began keeping lists of candidates they wanted to place. Petrolati, the House speaker pro tempore, became increasingly involved in hiring decisions in 15 courthouses in Western Massachusetts.
At sleepy Belchertown District Court, for example, David E. Roy, a respected lawyer with 24 years of experience, lost his job as acting chief probation officer in 2005 in favor of the husband of Petrolati’s legislative aide, Colleen Ryan. Robert Ryan had just retired from a long career in the federal probation service, but wanted to work for the state. When Roy declined to apply for the job as Ryan’s assistant, probation hired Petrolati’s former aide and sometime driver, Andre Pereira.
“I don’t want to talk about that part of my life,’’ said Roy, who was demoted to probation officer in 2005 with a $20,000 pay cut.
Ambitious probation officers and job candidates quickly figured out that campaign donations to politicians with O’Brien’s ear could jump-start a career like nothing else, and events such as Petrolati’s fund-raiser at Ludlow Country Club last Thursday became important dates. Since 2002, at least 100 probation employees have given money to Petrolati even though he hasn’t faced an opponent since 2000.
“You gotta kiss the ring,’’ explained the Petrolati confidant with direct knowledge of how the patronage process has worked and who asked not to be named.
Former deputy commissioner Burke, who said he interviewed 3,000 potential probation employees before retiring in 2008, angrily denied that Petrolati or other politicians influenced his recommendations. “I’m telling you, if they were dummies, they didn’t make it,’’ said Burke, who bought four $100 tickets to Petrolati’s fund-raiser last week because “I like the guy.’’
Some probation officers resent Petrolati’s influence, but paying homage seems to work.
Michael J. LeCours, an official with probation’s community service program, began donating heavily to Petrolati and state Senator Stephen J. Buoniconti of West Springfield after he got in trouble in 2003 for writing a letter of recommendation for a convicted racketeer on court stationery. LeCours called Carmine Manzi, convicted for activities related to the New York Genovese crime family, “a great asset to both [his] barbershop and his community.’’ He got a public rebuke from Chief Justice Mulligan’s office for not using common sense.
Since the incident, LeCours has become a supervisor and increased his annual pay by almost $20,000 a year to $73,647 in 2009. During the same period, he has given $1,775 to Petrolati and $1,800 to Buoniconti, compared with just $75 for both in the two years before.
LeCours calls both men friends, but denies they helped advance his career.
LeCours is more forthcoming than many colleagues with similar giving patterns: The Spotlight Team attempted to contact about 30 of the 155 probation employees who’ve given at least $300 to one state legislator in recent years, but most either declined to comment, hung up, or did not return phone calls.
Some, however, said legislators none too subtly pressure probation employees to contribute, especially after they deliver a job or promotion.
“It’s made very clear: You’re on the team. We’ll be calling on you for support,’’ said the confidant of Petrolati, referring to Petrolati’s expectations of probation employees he has helped. “They’re put on the mailing list and they’re expected to donate.’’
Petrolati rejected the confidant’s characterization, writing, “To contend that I expect ‘pay’ for supporting a particular individual’s job application is wholly irresponsible.’’
Similarly, some probation employees may feel pressure to support politicians backed by O’Brien. In July 2005, an impressive 45 probation employees — mostly senior managers — donated $5,900 to state treasurer Cahill. O’Brien said he played no role in orchestrating the donations to help out his fellow Quincy resident and the man who hired his wife to work in the state Lottery a few months later.
Cahill said in a statement that he had known Laurie O’Brien for years and that she was hired based on qualifications.
For years, O’Brien relied on his powerful connections and a determinedly low public profile to build his empire with minimal notice, nearly tripling his department budget (after allowing for inflation) during a decade when the number of criminals who require hands-on supervision fell by more than 10 percent.
Recently, a series of unflattering reports have focused an uncomfortable light on O’Brien, portraying his agency as a “dysfunctional’’ rogue in state government. So far, the Legislature has shown little interest in reform proposals — the joint Judiciary Committee didn’t even ask questions when Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan presented the administration’s plan to bring probation under the governor’s control.
The bitter 2008 fight to succeed disgraced House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi left behind suspicions among Rogers supporters that O’Brien had played a hand in helping DeLeo defeat the Norwood Democrat. Two Rogers supporters, insisting on anonymity, point to what they view as a suspicious pattern of hiring — an accusation that DeLeo and his allies reject and resent.
In the spring of that year, the House Ways and Means Committee, then chaired by DeLeo, recommended $137 million for probation, $2.3 million more than Chief Justice Mulligan requested. In the course of the budget debate, probation’s friends in the House increased funding by another $3.7 million.
The legislative windfall gave O’Brien more money for a flurry of hiring. By May 2008, O’Brien had hired people associated with legislators Rogers believed were supporting him, including Democratic state Representatives James J. O’Day of West Boylston, Geraldo Alicea of Charlton, and Harold P. Naughton Jr. of Clinton.
All three legislators say they always supported DeLeo for speaker and did not change their support based on O’Brien’s hiring of O’Day’s colleague, Alicea’s intern, and the daughter of the police chief in Naughton’s hometown.
“I was with Bob DeLeo from the beginning,’’ said Alicea, a former probation officer who said O’Brien has done a good job. “Jack O’Brien never reached out . . . in asking for support for Bob DeLeo.’’
DeLeo flatly denies that he offered probation jobs in exchange for votes. O’Brien said he played no role in the speakership fight.
But supporters of Rogers said they believe that the burst of probation hiring helped doom Rogers by peeling off the votes of legislators such as Alicea.
High stakes, consequences in the house O’Brien built
State Representative Michael F. Rush, the West Roxbury Democrat whose father served as chief probation officer of the district court there, was said to be furious when a draft report by the trial court’s affirmative action officer found merit to the allegations that his father discriminated against five women. The elder Rush announced his plan to retire three days before the report was completed.
The younger Rush is now sponsoring a budget amendment, backed by DeLeo, to move the trial court’s downtown administrative offices to public safety Siberia — the dingy top floor of Charlestown District Court — to save money. A source with direct knowledge of the matter said Rush has spoken of wanting to punish Mulligan, the chief administrative judge, for how his father was treated. Mulligan said James Rush was not pressured to retire.
DeLeo’s office insisted the proposal is only about cost savings, but it underscores the stakes for probation employees and judges in going up against the house that Jack O’Brien built. Time and again, employees wanted to talk about the gross inequities in today’s Probation Department, but they shrank from speaking out publicly for fear of retaliation from O’Brien and his allies.
For good reason, it appears.
Two of the women who complained about Rush, both African-American, went on to sue him and O’Brien, citing sex and race discrimination. Their case is pending. That lawsuit, say Helen Brown and Crystal Young, set off a chain of retaliatory actions by fellow probation officers, particularly Rush’s replacement, Mark J. Prisco, who has given more money to political campaigns since 2002 — $10,000 — than any other probation employee.
Brown says Prisco took away her main duties as assistant chief, supervising more junior probation officers, and assigned her instead to oversee the front counter of the probation office. According to court papers, Prisco denied that he demoted her, but said Brown was performing her job increasingly poorly. Thirteen members of the Probation Department signed a petition complaining that Brown had a negative attitude and was creating a hostile environment.
The presiding judge, Coffey, felt that “the omnipresence of Representative Rush,’’ and his anger over the accusations against his father, had poisoned the probation office against Brown, she said in her deposition.
The elder Rush is said to be seriously ill and not available for comment; in court documents he denied all the allegations. Michael Rush did not return numerous messages, but in his deposition he denied wielding influence in probation and said Coffey “tortured my father.’’
Coffey, in her deposition, noted that Rush sits on the Ways and Means Committee, which holds sway over probation’s budget and therefore its ability to save jobs from budget cuts.
“It’s my understanding that a lot of employees believe that loyalty and allegiance to the Legislature, and in particular to Mr. Rush, ensures job safety and protection,’’ she said.
Matt Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
"O’Brien rise and reign defined by tenacity"
By Thomas Farragher, Boston Globe Staff, May 24, 2010
Just before he took over as the state’s chief administrative judge, Robert A. Mulligan began meeting with the court system’s department heads, chummy meet-and-greet sessions that gave the incoming boss a chance to get to know his top lieutenants.
But when the judge shook hands with Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien during that summer of 2003, the encounter was icy.
O’Brien was still fuming about a district court judge’s 2002 decision to hold him in contempt of court, an embarrassing episode in which he found himself confined to a Brighton court’s prisoner dock after a dispute with the judge over drug testing procedures.
Mulligan thought the probation chief wanted an apology, but O’Brien had something else in mind.
“His demand was $300,000,’’ Mulligan said.
O’Brien’s surprise push to be compensated for what his pending lawsuit said was emotional distress, post-traumatic stress, and the damage that his reputation had sustained took Mulligan aback.
“It cast him in a different light,’’ Mulligan said of O’Brien.
The contempt-of-court dust-up offers a window into the insular, sharp-elbowed world of the state’s probation commissioner, the man who, as the Globe’s Spotlight Team reported yesterday, presides over an agency whose payroll is thick with patronage hires, whose sloppy financial controls make it vulnerable to employee theft, and where political contributions by employees often appear tied to career advancement.
Jack O’Brien does not want to talk about much of this. He declined the Globe’s request to discuss his career, his management philosophy, and a growing chorus of criticism about his department.
If he is by choice mostly silent, others are willing to fill out the picture. O’Brien is, by all accounts, a man of force and ambition and not inconsiderable achievement, a man who takes things personally and knows how to keep score.
This year, when Governor Deval Patrick sought to take control of O’Brien’s empire, proposing to move the probation agency from the judiciary into the executive branch, O’Brien let it be known that he considered the initiative a wounding personal affront. And he began to battle back.
Those who have watched O’Brien, 53, across the years — from his upbringing in a large family to his unremarkable but formative Boston College gridiron career to his methodical rise through Suffolk County’s Probation Department — would have expected no less.
“O’Brien is one of these guys [for whom] everything is personal,’’ said Robert F. Kumor Jr., the recently retired first justice of the Springfield District Court. “It’s like his own power fight.’’
O’Brien’s ambition and his appreciation for power and turf may have had its roots in Dorchester, where he was one of six siblings who grew up in one of that neighborhood’s Catholic parishes. He was a sprinter on the track team and a guard for Catholic Memorial’s basketball squad. By the time he arrived at The Heights in the mid-1970s as a football wide receiver, his older brother Joe was a year ahead of him and the team’s quarterback. The college’s media guide spoke optimistically about a “Joe-to-Jack pass completion [that] could make the BC aerial attack a family affair.’’
But that did not happen. O’Brien would have just three receptions in a winless senior season, but the alliances he forged in the old neighborhood and at BC would prove more enduring and more valuable than ephemeral football glory at Chestnut Hill.
Thomas M. Finneran, who had watched the O’Briens grow up from his home in St. Gregory’s Parish in Dorchester, would later become speaker of the Massachusetts House. John J. Irwin Jr., who cherished his affiliation with Boston College, where he earned his undergraduate and law degrees, would later become the state’s chief judge for administration and management, essentially running the trial court system to which the Probation Department belonged.
O’Brien had caught their notice early and cultivated relationships with them. They, in turn, would become the chief architects of his probation career.
“My association with him professionally would have been that Judge Irwin thinks a lot of Jack and is bringing him along or coaching him or schooling him or creating opportunities for him,’’ Finneran said in a recent interview.
If those sterling connections were key to O’Brien’s rise, he also paid his dues.
Two years after earning a sociology degree from BC in 1979, O’Brien was among 18 probation officers working at the Suffolk Superior Court building in Pemberton Square, where he would make lasting professional allegiances and earn a reputation as a stalwart co-worker who knew how to leaven the drudgery of courthouse routine.
“He was a real stand-up guy,’’ said Kathy L. Tate, an assistant chief probation officer at Suffolk Superior who worked with O’Brien through the 1980s. “He was one of those who would help me out if the job duties got too heavy. He was willing to step in and help out a colleague.’’
Tate, whose opinion of O’Brien would later sour, also remembers him and a group of other probation officers, some of whom he would later take with him into the probation commissioner’s front office, playing cards at lunchtime, part of a clique to which she did not belong.
As Finneran was chairing the House Ways and Means Committee with an eye on the speaker’s chair, O’Brien was on the move, too. He would become executive director of the Office of Community Corrections, supervising a network of treatment and education programs for offenders across the state, and he was a key Irwin ally as legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Trial Court.
That meant, Finneran said, that when Irwin showed up on Beacon Hill, O’Brien was his shadow. And the strategic importance of O’Brien’s friendship with Finneran almost certainly was not lost on Irwin, whose trial court budget was controlled by legislative leaders.
“He was always in the company of Judge Irwin, and Judge Irwin was carrying the ball on behalf of the judicial branch,’’ Finneran recalled. Someone who “used to be a neighborhood kid became part of Judge Irwin’s administrative team.’’
An insurgent Finneran was elected speaker in 1996, outflanking then-majority leader Richard A. Voke by collecting the support of every House Republican. When longtime Probation Commissioner Donald Cochran retired a year later, O’Brien was tapped to succeed him, a much lower-profile but equally surprising turn of events.
The consensus insiders’ choice was Ronald P. Corbett Jr., a longtime and respected probation professional with sterling credentials. He was a deputy probation commissioner and a Harvard graduate. He held a doctorate in education and was a former president of the National Association of Probation Executives. The year the commissioner’s job opened up, the national association named Corbett its probation executive of the year.
But O’Brien had something more important: Irwin’s unwavering support and Finneran’s friendship.
“Everyone was scratching their head because Ron Corbett was eminently qualified,’’ recalled R. Peter Anderson, a retired district court judge.
Anderson said he had never heard of Jack O’Brien before. “I was just shocked that somebody who was so qualified was overlooked,’’ he said.
But on Jan. 1, 1998, O’Brien had completed his climb to the top of the Probation Department. Soon, with Finneran’s support, he would remake it in his own image, an agency that he and his allies say is rigorously run and tightly controlled but which critics assail as a bureaucratic island unto itself, opaque, poorly managed, and answerable to no one.
Dan Winslow, a former judge and legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney, said he first met O’Brien just after he became commissioner, when Winslow was the presiding justice in Wrentham District Court.
Winslow, who is now running for a seat in the Legislature, said he was frustrated by his limited options when dealing with repeat drunken-driving offenders. When Winslow proposed using an ignition interlock device that would prevent anyone with measurable alcohol on their breath from driving, he said, O’Brien accompanied him to a potential vendor’s shop in Rhode Island.
“He was new to the job at the time,’’ Winslow recalled. “He was very responsible and approachable and no-nonsense. What I liked about Jack O’Brien at the time was that he was a straight shooter. If he thought something was a lousy idea, without deference to the robe, he’d tell you what he thought.’’
Finneran says too much is made of how his relationship with O’Brien fueled the younger man’s rise. “At the State House, people would think Finneran and O’Brien are joined at the hip,’’ Finneran said. “Overstated to the nth degree.’’
The former speaker said they were neighborhood acquaintances. They played on opposing teams in the same local softball league. They trained together for the Boston Marathon, when Finneran’s wife would host pasta parties before the race and would ferry the runners in her van to the starting line on race day.
“But we don’t go out socially,’’ Finneran said.
But he acknowledged that in 2001 when the Legislature stripped judges of the authority to hire probation officers and gave it to O’Brien, a seminal moment in his tenure as commissioner, Finneran helped shepherd that legislation, which consolidated O’Brien’s power.
Finneran said he was motivated to make the change in part after watching the trial court squander millions of dollars on a new computer system that he described as a debacle for which no one could be held accountable. He wanted someone in charge.
“He’ll stand up and take responsibility,’’ Finneran said, explaining his move to dramatically strengthen O’Brien’s hand. “I do think he was probably more politically attentive than a judge would have been.’’
Indeed, many judicial critics of the Probation Department’s hiring and promotion system under O’Brien say he is politically attentive in the extreme. As the Globe reported yesterday, O’Brien’s agency has hired or promoted at least 250 friends, relatives, and financial backers of politicians and top court officials.
After Kumor, the former Springfield chief justice, joined with another jurist to ask the Supreme Judicial Court to return control over probation hiring to judges, he bumped into O’Brien at a sporting event at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Kumor recalled that the commissioner made it clear that he took the judge’s legal challenge personally. He was not interested in the underlying legal niceties about separation of powers, Kumor said.
“He’s not a very sophisticated player, as much as he thinks he is,’’ said Kumor, who stepped down from the bench last year after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. “He had gotten checked, and all he knew how to do was to check back. . . . He’s either got thin skin, or unless he’s got his hockey pads on, he can’t take a hit.’’
As it turns out, it wasn’t much of a hit. O’Brien’s appointment powers have remained unchecked.
If the challenge from Kumor irked O’Brien, his contempt-of-court showdown in Judge Anderson’s Brighton courtroom in the spring of 2002 infuriated him.
And in the boiling back-and-forth that ensued, O’Brien made clear that he would brook no challenge to his control of his department.
Anderson had ordered urine testing for several probationers convicted of various drug offenses. He ordered the Office of Community Corrections, run by the Probation Department, to conduct the random testing at least once a week beginning in January 2002. O’Brien’s office, citing financial constraints, said it could perform only more limited testing, twice a month.
That led to a series of increasingly contentious courtroom hearings.
During an April 19, 2002, hearing, Anderson made it clear that his patience with O’Brien had worn thin.
“Let me . . . tell you how I see it,’’ Anderson said, according to a court transcript. “I see this as the commissioner interfering with my orders.’’
Anderson said that if O’Brien had shown any willingness to cooperate, he would not be facing the contempt-of-court order Anderson was now weighing.
“I have never in my 11 years as a judge ever had any other court official respond in the manner in which the commissioner has responded,’’ Anderson said, according to the transcript. “It is a shocking and very sad state of affairs.’’
Six days later in Brighton District Court, it was clear the two sides could not find common ground. Anderson said he had issued a lawful order O’Brien must obey. O’Brien, represented by James Arguin, an assistant attorney general, said he would run the Probation Department, not Anderson.
Arguin conceded that if he wished, O’Brien could comply with the court order and have the drug testing done, as the judge had ordered, by the Office of Community Corrections.
“He does not believe your honor has the lawful authority to tell him how to allocate his resources,’’ Arguin said.
Anderson had had enough.
“Today, when I put to him directly this opportunity to comply, he has refused again,’’ the judge said, before motioning to a court officer. “And pursuant to all the evidence before me, I find that he is in contempt of this court. Mr. Crowley, I ask you to put the commissioner into custody.’’
In an interview, Anderson said he took no pleasure in ordering the probation commissioner into the courtroom’s dock. “But I had never seen anything of this level of mendacity,’’ he said.
A lawsuit O’Brien later brought against Anderson was dismissed. But the commissioner sued the trial court, too.
Mulligan rebuffed O’Brien’s demand for a $300,000 settlement, but the probation chief did receive $20,000 to settle the case, a payment that continues to mystify Anderson, who wonders about the trial court’s motive.
“He had no law on his side,’’ Anderson said. “I never got any sense of why they made that decision.’’
O’Brien isn’t talking.
He declined the Globe’s request for an in-person interview for this report. He would not be photographed or tape-recorded.
When asked why he would not answer personal questions, his spokeswoman intercepted the question for her boss.
“He’s not interested in profiles,’’ she said.
O’Brien began his 13th year as probation commissioner in January, the same month the governor proposed to take control of his department. To say the Legislature, where O’Brien’s network thrives, has greeted the proposed change dismissively is an understatement.
O’Brien did not even bother to show up for a hearing on the proposal before the Judiciary Committee, at which not a single legislator asked a question.
The day before, when the Joint Ways and Means Committee examined the measure at an otherwise sleepy hearing in Sturbridge, the lawmaker chairing the session seemed to go out of his way to make sure that the governor was not mounting a personal attack on O’Brien.
“Are there some pejorative connotations relative to the Probation Department?’’ wondered Senator Stephen M. Brewer, the committee’s vice chairman.
The budget debate is far from over. But the governor’s attempt to overhaul O’Brien’s department has foundered in the House. Patrick’s plan never made it out of committee.
The Globe Spotlight Team would like to hear from readers with tips about the state’s Probation Department. The telephone number is 617-929-3208. Confidential messages can also be left at 617-929-7483. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
"Calls to overhaul probation agency: Patrick, Baker press for AG investigation"
By Thomas Farragher, Boston Globe Staff, May 24, 2010
Governor Deval Patrick and his Republican challenger, Charles D. Baker, called yesterday for a sweeping overhaul in the management of the state’s Probation Department and asked the attorney general’s office to open an investigation into an agency awash in patronage jobs and hamstrung by poor financial oversight.
There were indications that Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien might have exhausted the patience of his judicial branch bosses.
Baker said O’Brien should be fired and called on Attorney General Martha Coakley to look into the connection of political donations to hiring and promotion decisions at the Probation Department.
“Enough is enough,’’ Baker said. “This has to end.’’
Patrick called for an independent review by Coakley after a Globe Spotlight Team report yester day detailed O’Brien’s leadership of a department in which political connections and contributions can be keys to advancement and where poor financial supervision has left the agency that handles $70 million in cash a year vulnerable to theft.
“An independent review by the attorney general is warranted, given [the Globe’s] story and the lack of transparency and oversight that has plagued the Probation Department,’’ Patrick, said in a statement. his office.
O’Brien has led the department for 12 years and, with strong support in the Legislature, has increasingly functioned independently of his putative boss, Judge Robert A. Mulligan, the trial court’s chief justice for administration and management.
Mulligan and Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall issued a joint statement yesterday and said they will have more to say “after appropriate consultation within the judicial branch.’’
“The recent media coverage . . . raises serious issues concerning the hiring and promotion of probation officers and other management practices within the Probation Department of the trial court,’’ the judges said. “We are deeply concerned with not only the proper administration of the Probation Department but with how such reports may affect the public’s perception of the integrity of all aspects of the judicial branch.’’
Attempts to reach Probation Department officials were unsuccessful yesterday.
Coakley’s office released a statement saying that the Globe report “raises troubling concerns.’’
“We are reviewing the situation to determine what role our office can and should play in addressing these concerns,’’ the statement said.
Baker called on his rivals in the governor’s race to join him in calling for O’Brien’s dismissal.
State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who is running as an independent, instead blasted Baker’s campaign for trying “to politicize issues for their own benefit without having a full understanding of the matters at hand.’’
Cahill has received substantial contributions from Probation Department employees. O’Brien’s wife and one of his daughters work for Cahill.
“Rather than villainizing one individual without having a full understanding of the situation, perhaps we should try to fix the root case,’’ Cahill said in a statement.
A spokesman for Patrick would not say flatly that the governor wants O’Brien to be fired. But he said the plan the governor issued in January to remove the Probation Department from the judicial branch of government and place it under the Executive Office of Public Safety would allow him to make that decision.
“The way we run our probation department has to change, and it has to change now,’’ the governor said in a statement he issued to the Globe last week. “This is an area of state government that has been untouched for far too long, and we can’t wait any longer to fix it.’’
Patrick’s proposal has been ignored, so far, by the Legislature, and never made it out of committee in the House. Senate budget deliberations are ongoing.
Patrick and Baker found rare common ground on the need to restructure the probation agency. But politics intervened there, too.
“We are glad that Charlie Baker has finally joined our call for reform of this agency, a reform that the governor has been pushing for long before today,’’ Patrick spokesman Kyle Sullivan said.
Baker said he and his rivals should unite on the issue because “this is one of these things where everyone has to come together and put up a united front.’’
“I think the governor should call for [O’Brien’s resignation] and the treasurer should call for it and Mulligan should pursue it,’’ he said.
Baker said he was particularly troubled by the Spotlight Team’s description of a “pay to play’’ mentality in the probation agency in which ambitious employees, qualified or not, make campaign contributions to key politicians in hopes of advancing their career.
“We’re talking about the supervision and monitoring and oversight of people convicted of crimes,’’ Baker said in a telephone interview. “This is heavy-duty stuff. It needs to operate without a whiff of all this back-scratching and deal-making. There are some people who appear to be very, very qualified and there’s a sense among a lot of the people [the Globe] talked to that it’s important to contribute if you want to advance.’’
Baker said he supports a proposal advanced by his running mate, Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei, to return control of Probation Department hiring to judges in the trial court, a system that had been in place before the Legislature gave O’Brien that power in 2001.
Cahill said he would support that, too.
“The Legislature created this problem by moving probation from judiciary control,’’ Cahill said. “Such controls allow for greater transparency, and I would support a move to return the agency to judiciary oversight. We have to make sure we are taking these accusations very seriously.’’
Thomas Farragher can be reached at email@example.com.
"Probation commissioner suspended: Court orders investigation into agency"
By Thomas Farragher and Andrea Estes, Boston Globe Staff, May 25, 2010
Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien was stripped of his duties yesterday as the state’s highest court appointed a special counsel to conduct a “prompt and thorough’’ investigation into the state agency.
The Supreme Judicial Court named Paul F. Ware Jr., a senior Boston trial counsel with broad experience investigating alleged public corruption, as independent counsel, granted him subpoena power, and asked him to finish his probe of the Probation Department within 90 days. Ware, who will have the power to collect testimony under oath, declined to say whether crimes may have been committed.
“That is the purpose of any investigation,’’ he said, “for the independent counsel, or perhaps others, to make judgments regarding what, if any, civil or criminal action is warranted.’’
O’Brien’s suspension, with pay, was announced a day after the Globe Spotlight Team detailed his tenure at a probation agency that is pervaded with patronage jobs, in which political contributions are often associated with advancement, and where lax financial oversight has left the department vulnerable to theft.
“We are deeply concerned with not only the proper administration of the Probation Department, but with how such reports may affect the public’s perception of the integrity of all aspects of the judicial branch,’’ Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Judge Robert A. Mulligan, the trial court’s chief justice for administration and management, said in a joint statement.
“The reporting by the Globe Spotlight Team requires a full, prompt, and independent inquiry,’’ the judges said.
Mulligan said he met with O’Brien in the judge’s office opposite Government Center early yesterday to deliver the news.
“I met with him and told him what I was doing,’’ Mulligan said.
O’Brien told the Associated Press yesterday that he was disappointed with the court’s decision. He said every one of his appointments has to be approved by Mulligan, who also has to approve that the hiring process had been followed correctly.
“They talk about a rogue agency,’’ O’Brien said. “I answer to the chief justice [Mulligan]. I don’t know what anybody means by rogue agency.’’
O’Brien will receive his $130,000 annual salary while under investigation, because the allegations are unproven.
The court leadership’s decision to investigate O’Brien halts, at least temporarily, his 12-year career leading a department with more than 2,000 employees that is responsible for supervising thousands of people convicted of crimes and sentenced to serve time in the community.
Asked whether he could foresee O’Brien returning to his job, Mulligan said, “I’m not going to prejudge the result of the investigation. The investigation will speak for itself, and whatever the result, we will act accordingly.’’
Marshall and Mulligan named Ronald P. Corbett Jr., executive director of the Supreme Judicial Court, as acting administrator of the probation agency. Corbett was the consensus choice for the top probation job in 1998, when O’Brien was promoted instead.
Corbett, with Mulligan at his side, met with O’Brien’s staff at a Beacon Hill office building opposite the State House early yesterday afternoon to calm the anxiety of top probation officials, who for years had answered to O’Brien, a tough taskmaster and a man of force and ambition.
Corbett, formerly a deputy probation commissioner, is a Harvard graduate and a former president of the National Association of Probation Executives.
“We’re fortunate to have someone of [Corbett’s] ability to be able and willing to go in there,’’ Mulligan said.
The SJC’s order naming Ware the independent counsel says he will investigate alleged improprieties “with respect to the hiring and promotion of employees within the Probation Department, as well as other practices and management.’’
“It has come to the attention of the justices that the hiring and promotion of employees within the Probation Department of the trial court allegedly are based on reasons other than merit, which is a matter of concern to the public and to all members of the judicial branch,’’ the SJC’s order states. The order, signed by all seven justices, asks Ware to make recommendations “with respect to indications or findings of misconduct, if any’’ within 90 days or as soon as possible.
The news of O’Brien’s suspension ricocheted across the judicial landscape yesterday, lighting up phone lines in courthouses across the state.
Attorney General Martha Coakley welcomed the independent counsel’s investigation. “We believe that a review by Paul Ware will be thorough and completed expeditiously,’’ Coakley said in a statement. “We anticipate that should Mr. Ware encounter matters that warrant review or investigation by the attorney general’s office, he will refer them to our office.’’
Governor Deval Patrick said the probation agency should be transferred from the judiciary to the executive branch, where it would have stronger oversight, but he found little support from legislative leaders.
And Patrick sparred with his reelection challengers over who was to blame, and what to do next. Republican Charles D. Baker and independent Timothy P. Cahill said the judiciary should be granted more oversight over probation, but they rejected Patrick’s proposal for more control by the executive branch.
Scott Allen and Marcella Bombardieri of the Globe Spotlight Team and Michael Levenson and Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. The Spotlight Team would like to hear from readers with tips about the state’s Probation Department. The telephone number is 617-929-3208. Confidential messages can also be left at 617-929-7483. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
A BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL
"To clean up patronage pit, probation boss must go"
May 25, 2010
HONEST OPERATIONS can’t be restored to the state Probation Department as long as Commissioner John J. O’Brien retains the power to hire, fire, promote, and discipline its employees. O’Brien and his protectors in the Legislature have turned the probation office into a patronage pit — a place where political connections trump talent and funds go astray. O’Brien, who was placed on administrative leave yesterday pending an investigation, embodies what is wrong with the office. He must go, and the empire he created must be reformed.
The Globe Spotlight Team reported Sunday that 250 positions in the department are occupied by employees with personal and political connections to O’Brien and the elected officials closely allied with him. In the department he has headed since 1998, good candidates for key jobs fall away to accommodate the well-connected. O’Brien himself came to power in similar fashion — boxing out a talented deputy probation commissioner — with the help of powerful allies, including former House Speaker Thomas Finneran and John Irwin, the former chief justice for administration and management.
State lawmakers over the years have done everything in their power to insulate probation commissioners from upright judges and the public, even granting an unlimited term to the holder of the office. Yesterday, Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert Mulligan finally brought the hammer down. Citing concerns for the integrity of the department, Mulligan and the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court placed O’Brien on leave and ordered an independent counsel to investigate.
O’Brien should resign immediately. If he fails to do so, his legislative enablers should stand aside as the investigation proceeds. Lawmakers control the court budget and haven’t been shy in the past about humiliating judges who threaten their job bank or campaign coffers.
Some lawmakers are fighting back. State Senator Richard Tisei of Wakefield has filed an amendment that would strip the probation commissioner of exclusive hiring powers, returning control to judges. Tisei would also limit the probation commissioner’s job to a 5-year term. That might solve the problem, as long as the probation chief works under a chief justice of Mulligan’s temperament. But future judges with less gumption would still be vulnerable to the Legislature’s arm-twisting. A better solution rests with Governor Patrick’s proposal to place the Probation Department under the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, similar to parole and corrections. Civil Service tests for probation officers would help to screen out candidates with nothing to offer other than political juice.
O’Brien has played the political game shrewdly. But the Probation Department shouldn’t be a personal fiefdom. It has a vital role in protecting public safety, and it can’t operate with a leader so unworthy of the public’s trust.
CRUNCH TIME ON BEACON HILL - A BOSTON GLOBE EDITORIAL
"Probation: Tighten reins on a rogue department"
June 22, 2010
The state Senate is trying to restrain the state’s runaway Probation Department, where patronage is common and accountability is rare. The Senate’s budget bill would wisely give court system administrators the power to oversee the appointment, dismissal, assignment, and discipline of probation officers.
Key personnel decisions have been left to the whims of Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien, who was suspended in May following a Globe Spotlight series revealing hiring irregularities and lax financial oversight in the department. The Senate amendment would create a task force to recommend whether the courts or the governor’s public safety office should oversee reform of probation. In the interim, the department should report to someone other than itself, and honest operation would be well served by giving judges final authority over personnel decisions for now.
The House has failed to address the dysfunctional Probation Department. As a conference committee reviews budget bills, House negotiators should accept the Senate plan.
"Patrick vetoes effort to protect suspended probation commissioner: At issue: a limit on terms he can serve"
By Kyle Cheney, State House News Service, July 2, 2010
A legislative plan to protect embattled and suspended probation commissioner John O’Brien from term limits drew a veto from Governor Deval Patrick on Wednesday, despite concerns among lawmakers that applying term limits retroactively could be illegal.
“I am vetoing this section because any commissioner of probation should be held accountable by a periodic term of years, rather than a life appointment,’’ Patrick wrote in a message to lawmakers.
In the annual state budget, lawmakers had approved a five-year term limit for probation commissioners, but on the advice of counsel decided against imposing that term limit on O’Brien, said Senator Cynthia Creem, Democrat of Newton, who sponsored a slew of amendments to the Probation Department in the wake of a recent patronage scandal.
After a May 23 Globe Spotlight Team report that detailed rampant patronage at the probation agency, often with the blessing or encouragement of legislators, Creem quickly redrafted an amendment to the state budget that eliminated future commissioners’ lifetime appointments in favor of five-year terms.
Her proposal also included language establishing a task force to determine whether the Probation Department should be merged into the Executive Branch, a change supported by Patrick, or remain in the courts.
In an interview, Creem cheered the governor’s veto, saying his legal team must have interpreted the law differently than the Senate’s.
Creem also bristled at lawmakers’ unwillingness to grant senior court officials total authority to move funds among judicial agencies.
Lawmakers instead limited their “transferability’’ to 5 percent of their total budgets.
Creem was one of two Democrats to vote against the state budget, citing her disappointment in the revisions to her probation proposals.
A spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo deferred questions to Charles Murphy, the House Ways and Means chairman.
An aide to Murphy cited the “give and take’’ of conference committees as the reason the probation amendments turned out the way they did.
“The governor’s veto message and supplemental budget are both being analyzed by the committee,’’ said the aide, Wayne Weikel. “No recommendations for possible action have been made at this time.’’
A spokeswoman for Senate budget chief Steven Panagiotakos said O’Brien’s lifetime appointment is “contractual’’ and cannot be revoked.
A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray echoed those concerns, saying a change in O’Brien’s lifetime term would “change an existing contract.’’
"With funding low, many can’t get legal aid for poor"
By Megan Woolhouse | Boston Globe Staff, October 15, 2014
Massachusetts legal aid organizations turned away nearly two-thirds of people qualifying for civil legal assistance over the last year due to a lack of funding, leaving thousands of low-income residents without representation in cases from domestic violence to foreclosure, according to the findings of a statewide task force to be released Wednesday.
More than 30,000 low-income clients were denied legal services in 2013, meaning many were unable to pursue cases or were left to represent themselves in court, where they often lost their cases, according to the 37-page report.
“The overused word ‘crisis’ actually applies here,” said Harvard Law School’s dean, Martha Minow, a member of the task force. “When you have people who are literally not represented in actions where they can lose their homes or face physical violence, where they can’t get legal remedies to which they’re entitled, there’s a failure to live up to the rule of law.”
At least two dozen of 134 lawyers and staff at Greater Boston Legal Services have been laid off since 2008 and another nine will leave due to further cuts at year’s end.
The 32-member task force, which also included Fidelity Investments counsel Jonathan Chiel, EMC Corp. general counsel Paul T. Dacier, and Governor Deval Patrick’s chief legal counsel, Katherine Cook, was convened by the Boston Bar Association. It studied the state of civil legal aid in Massachusetts for 18 months.
Unlike criminal cases, in which legal representation is guaranteed by the Constitution, there is no such guarantee in civil cases. These cases are often taken by lawyers working for free, and by legal aid attorneys in agencies partially funded with taxpayer money.
Much of civil legal aid work is financed by the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, an arcane fund generated from the pooled interest paid on small amounts of money that lawyers hold in trust for clients. That fund has shrunk dramatically in recent years, due to historically low bank interest rates.
In 2007, the fund generated nearly $32 million in annual interest; this year, it is expected to shrink to $4.5 million.
“We have a staggering problem funding legal aid in Massachusetts,” said Julia Huston, president of the Boston Bar Association. “There is a tremendous need, and that need has become more dire given the economic conditions of the last few years.”
Massachusetts spends about $15 million yearly for legal aid. The report calls on the state to provide an additional $30 million over the next three years.
The task force surveyed 13 major legal service agencies, including Greater Boston Legal Services, collecting data over three separate weeks in 2013 and annualizing it. The report characterized the findings as “stunning and discouraging.”
Overall, only one in three people who qualified for help received it, the survey found. In cases, involving family law, such as child custody and domestic abuse, four of five eligible clients were turned away. In consumer and employment cases, nearly three out of four could not get legal help.
“A whopping 11,843 disadvantaged individuals or families facing eviction or foreclosure were turned away over the course of one year,” the report said.
Ginette Brillant, a Haitian immigrant who worked at Beth Israel Hospital for 25 years, is an example of the impact that legal aid can have, according to the report. Brillant put $20,000 down on a house in Randolph and paid $1,700 a month in a rent-to-own arrangement. She later learned that her broker was a scam artist and that the house was in foreclosure.
She asked the bank’s property manager to make much-needed repairs because water was leaking from the master bedroom and bathroom ceilings. The repairs were not made, despite orders by the board of health, and the ceiling eventually collapsed, according to the report.
With help from an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, Brillant eventually won a judgment of nearly $50,000 in damages from the bank plus $30,000 in attorney’s fees.
Dick Bauer, a senior lawyer at Greater Boston Legal Services, said if no one had represented Brillant, she probably would have been evicted, lost her deposit, and ended up in a homeless shelter or motel.
“We’re talking mostly about people with kids,” he said, who often end up “under a bridge or spending the night in an emergency room of a hospital.”
The task force also surveyed judges, with 80 responding. More than 60 percent of the judges said the number of litigants without representation increased following the economic downturn.
Nearly 90 percent of judges said evidence was improperly presented in 90 percent of the cases in which people were not represented by lawyers. More than 60 percent said that the lack of legal representation hindered the court’s ability to ensure equal justice.
The report argued that the benefits of representing eligible people in eviction and foreclosure proceedings far outweighed the costs of providing services. It estimated that providing legal help to the poorest families and individuals alone would save the state about $25.5 million in emergency shelter services and other costs.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.
- Jonathan Melle
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