Summer 2014 Editor’s note
Going deep on Probation
there’s nothing in this issue about the federal trial of former Probation commissioner John O’Brien and two of his top aides, but that’s only because we’ve been reporting on the case extensively online at commonwealthmagazine.org. For those of you accustomed to reading just our quarterly print publication, the online coverage is worth checking out because the trial is providing a fascinating glimpse at the inner workings of patronage on Beacon Hill.
Our daily probation coverage is part of a new effort to provide deep online coverage of one or two current issues that are important to the state while continuing our ongoing and periodic reporting on such subjects as education, politics, transportation, and the environment.
The probation coverage is also attracting a big audience. We’ve had more visitors to our website in recent weeks than at any time in our history, including weeks when the quarterly magazine is released and all of its content is made available online. What that tells me is that there is a group of readers out there who are hungry for the type of in-depth coverage we offer that cannot be found anywhere else.
But none of those lawmakers are being charged with crimes. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz spent years pursuing lawmakers and came up empty. The only ones fighting for their freedom in court are O’Brien and his former deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III.
State lawmakers have long had designs on filling jobs at Probation. Prior to 2001, they had to deal with the first justices at individual courts, who were in charge of hiring. Lawmakers made sure the judges would take their patronage referrals by funding each court separately, a practice that ensured the first justice would be receptive to their calls. One former Probation employee testified that if there were two openings at one court, one of the postings would go to the judge at the court and the other to a lawmaker. One defense attorney characterized the practice as “one for you and one for me.”
In 2001, then-House speaker Thomas Finneran decided dealing with each individual court was too much trouble. According to court testimony, Finneran worked out a change in law with O’Brien giving him appointment authority for all jobs at Probation, transforming patronage at the agency from a retail to a wholesale operation.Some say what happened at Probation is scandalous, while others say political horse-trading for jobs is nothing new. Whether a jury will find a crime was committed is far from clear. US District Court Judge William Young keeps reminding jurors that patronage is not a crime. He should know; he used to work as legal counsel to former Gov. Francis Sargent in the early 1970s, a time when governors often employed people who were openly referred to as patronage secretaries.
Enjoy reading our latest issue, but also be sure to check out our website. You’ll be glad you did.