The payoff from patronage

O’Brien allegedly used jobs to curry favor

Both sides in the upcoming racketeering trial of top former Probation Department officials generally agree that agency jobs were steered to those with political connections on Beacon Hill. One side calls it patronage and the other side calls it a crime. But what the Probation officials received in return – their payoff for running a rigged hiring process, if you will – is murky and likely to become a central issue in the case.

In its complaint, the US attorney’s office alleges that former Probation commissioner John O’Brien and two of his top aides ran a criminal enterprise that essentially used the currency of jobs to curry favor with lawmakers “in a position to impact the enterprise through legislation, budget authorizations, and in other ways.”

In other words, O’Brien wasn’t trying to enrich himself personally; he was trying to expand his agency and consolidate power. Documenting that effort won’t be easy for Justice Department lawyers because it’s very difficult on Beacon Hill to trace cause and effect.

The reference to O’Brien’s bid to influence legislation is interesting because it implies either that the entire House and Senate was in on the scheme or that select House and Senate leaders held so much power that they could impose their will on the bodies.

In 2001, according to the US attorney’s complaint, the Legislature passed a law that gave a far greater degree of hiring authority at Probation to O’Brien and reduced the oversight of judges and other court officials.

In 2006, the Legislature passed a law giving Probation oversight of a new program requiring electronic monitoring of sex offenders and offenders involved in domestic violence. The legislation came with an appropriation for equipment, offices, and approximately 40 employees.

According to the US attorney’s complaint, O’Brien steered 20 of the 40 new jobs to people recommended by members of the Legislature. Rep. Robert DeLeo, who at the time was the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and today is the House Speaker, was given the opportunity to fill about 10 of those jobs, according to the complaint. DeLeo allegedly filled the positions by soliciting from other House members job candidates who “were subsequently hired without any vetting process and without any interview.”

The complaint alleges O’Brien gave DeLeo control over the jobs to gain legislative access on Beacon Hill and to help DeLeo in an upcoming contest for speaker. DeLeo’s attorney has denied the lawmaker bought votes with Probation jobs and has repeatedly said his client was not a target of the federal investigation.

The complaint against O’Brien doesn’t go into detail about the impact of his hiring scheme on Probation’s budget, probably because it’s difficult to translate the convoluted appropriation process into a clear narrative. The best analysis of what happened to Probation’s budget during the O’Brien years is contained in the November 2010 report issued by Paul Ware, an independent counsel brought in by the Supreme Judicial Court to gauge the extent of hiring corruption at the agency.

Ware focused on Probation appropriations from 2005 through 2009; before 2005, the agency’s appropriations were scattered among many accounts, and after 2009 the Great Recession curtailed spending across state government. O’Brien resigned as commissioner in May 2010.

Ware reported that the Probation budget increased fairly rapidly between 2005 and 2009, but not dramatically more than the budget for the entire Trial Court, of which Probation was a part. From 2005 to 2009, budget allocations for Probation increased from $114.6 million to $142.4 million, an aggregate increase of 24.2 percent and an average annual increase of 5.6 percent. The total budget for the Trial Court went up 22.5 percent overall, a 5.2 percent average annual increase. Spending for the entire state budget went up 17.7 percent over that time period, a 4.2 percent average annual increase.

Ware reported that the Legislature, each year between 2006 and 2009, appropriated more money for Probation than the Trial Court was requesting for the agency – $1.9 million more in 2008, $7.4 million more in 2006, $7.6 million more in 2009, and $8.5 million more in 2007.

State budget records also indicate that in 2008 and 2009 legislative conference committees tasked with reconciling differences between House and Senate budgets set higher spending levels for Probation than either branch had approved.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

In 2009, the Legislature was particularly good to Probation. The House approved a $140.7 million budget for Probation while the Senate came in at $138 million. The House-Senate conference committee, in an unusual move that possibly violated the Legislature’s own rules, approved a higher Probation budget of $142.3 million. Using his veto power, Gov. Deval Patrick tried to pare back Probation’s appropriation to $134.7 million, but both the House and Senate overrode him.

Probation’s budget today is $128.2 million — $14 million, or 10 percent, less than it was six years ago in 2009. Some of that reduction is probably due to spending cuts prompted by the Great Recession, but no doubt the departure of O’Brien and his cozy relationship with lawmakers has also contributed to the lower funding. The big question posed by the upcoming federal trial is whether O’Brien’s bid for power on Beacon Hill was a crime or just business as usual.