A stain on the dome

The Probation trial verdict tarnishes Beacon Hill again

The guilty finding was made at the federal courthouse on Boston’s waterfront, but its reverberations were loudest a mile away at the State House.

No legislators were formally charged in the case involving rigged hiring in the state Probation Department, but the entire way of business on Beacon Hill was effectively on trial as prosecutors exposed the often seamy underside of politics and patronage in Massachusetts state government.

A federal jury convicted John O’Brien, the former Probation Department commissioner, and two of his top deputies, Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III, of racketeering conspiracy. O’Brien and Tavares were also convicted on four mail fraud charges. Prosecutors alleged O’Brien and his underlings built a criminal enterprise that involved rigging the Probation Department’s hiring system and doling out jobs to lawmakers in exchange for favored treatment of the department by the Legislature.

The trial showed a hiring system that made a mockery of the Probation Department’s own procedures manual and shredded any idea that the process was seeking out the best candidate. Scores were fixed to push weak, but politically favored, candidates to the top of the hiring pool, with little regard for the serious responsibilities probation officers have to public safety and the supervision of criminal offenders. The fraudulent Probation hires ranged from candidates with long drug arrest records, who seemed like better candidates to be on probation than working for the agency, to an employee of another state department who made clear her sole interest in a Probation job was to boost her state pension.

While O’Brien and his two deputies were the ones convicted of running a criminal enterprise, it was Beacon Hill lawmakers who provided the raw material they worked with in the form of candidates for Probation jobs. The combination of a strong push from powerful officeholders on behalf of often weak candidates took the idea of patronage hiring to an almost farcical level.

The testimony over the course of the 10-week trial put the Legislature’s two top leaders, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, in the thick of the patronage hiring scheme, with a number of the Probation hires that the jury found to be part of the racketeering or mail fraud enterprise coming through their offices. Plenty of other lawmakers got pulled into the trial, including state Sen. Mark Montigny, whose girlfriend landed a Probation job, and Rep. Thomas Petrolati, whose wife was hired to run a key Probation office in Western Massachusetts.

As the verdicts were handed down on Thursday afternoon, legislators were scarce at the State House. The House was not in session, and Senators coming in and out of their chamber waved off questions from reporters seeking their comment on the verdict. “Have a nice day,” said Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg as he brushed past reporters.

It is hard to gauge the likely fallout from the case. The three House speakers that preceded DeLeo all wound up convicted of federal felonies, and DeLeo has been determined to restore the Legislature’s tarnished image. The Probation case will undoubtedly make that job harder, not least because DeLeo was a major Beacon Hill player in the business of recommending people for Probation jobs.

Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, said the fact that the defendants in the case were relatively unknown state officials may diminish its impact. “Ultimately, three guilty convictions of three people that most citizens couldn’t name is probably not going to change the culture on Beacon Hill,” he said.

At the same time, he said, the Probation hiring scheme took the idea of shady Beacon Hill doings to a new level. “The sheer audacity of what O’Brien was doing is breathtaking, and the ease in which members of the Legislature engaged in this activity is breathtaking even by Beacon Hill standards,” said Ubertaccio.

Secretary of State William Galvin said the verdict made it a bad day for state government. “It’s disappointing that’s for sure,” he said. Galvin said that the verdict “reflects badly on government” and that the trial revealed “abuses of process and justice.”

State Rep. Russell Holmes, one of the few legislators willing to talk on Thursday, said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome.

“No, by no means,” said the Mattapan Democrat. He said the patronage hiring that was detailed in the case went well beyond usual practice. “I think the perception has been that’s criminal, for lack of a better word,” he said. “I do believe in the end if the jury found them to be criminal, then the evidence must have supported that.”

Holmes, who was elected in 2010, said the activities that were the subject of the trial took place before he arrived on Beacon Hill. But he conceded that the trial has put “a spotlight on the entire building.”

That unflattering spotlight is one the candidates for governor were quick to denounce.

Charlie Baker, the likely Republican nominee, wasted no time trying to connect the verdict to the Democratic dominance of state government that his election would counterbalance.

“Today is a victory for taxpayers who deserve better than the one-party rule on Beacon Hill where politicians trade favors and turn a blind eye to abuses of power,” Baker said in a statement. “Regardless of the verdict today, the ugly trial made clear that state government is in desperate need of a new direction, with balance and real leadership where this type of disrespect for taxpayers’ money is replaced by transparency and accountability. Today is proof positive that the last eight years of one-party rule has bred corruption and waste in state government as my opponents stood by.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley, one of three candidates vying in the Democratic primary, said in a statement: “Today’s verdict sends a clear message that the corrupt hiring practices at issue were wrong and illegal. The rigged hiring system at the Probation Department never should have been accepted as ‘business as usual.’ Now we must remain vigilant that public accountability and transparency in government is enforced.”

Coakley might take issue with Baker’s charge that all his opponents have stood idly by. Coakley brought an earlier bribery case against O’Brien in state court that accused him of improperly securing a job for his wife with the state Lottery. O’Brien was acquitted of the charges in a trial last year.

State Treasurer Steve Grossman, another Democratic candidate for governor, said in a statement: “John O’Brien and his colleagues engaged in reprehensible behavior, abused the power of their office, and violated the public’s trust. The Probation Department hiring scheme unveiled during this trial demonstrates the urgent need to reform Beacon Hill and to restore confidence in our government and its leaders.”

Don Berwick, the former director of the federal Medicare and Medicaid office, is the one Beacon Hill outsider in the Democratic contest, and he was the only one who drew a direct line to legislative leaders.

“Political patronage must not be considered ‘business as usual’ on Beacon Hill,” Berwick said in a statement. “The latest round of patronage shenanigans are, sadly, all too familiar. Legislative leaders who were complicit by their actions or by their silence have allowed taxpayer dollars to be wasted, and, worse, have once again damaged faith in government.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said the case highlights the need for broader reforms on Beacon Hill and in the Probation Department. She also pointed to a former legislator whose name did not figure prominently during the case but who may have more to do with the problems in the Probation Department than anyone. It was the maneuverings of former House speaker Tom Finneran, she pointed out, that laid the groundwork for what followed at Probation through legislation he engineered in 2001 that gave O’Brien sweeping power over the operation of the department and gave the Legislature control of its purse strings. A probation department that was recognized in criminal justice circles nationally for innovation and efficiency, she said, “became a laughingstock.”

“My reaction is mixed,” Wilmot said of the verdict. “On one hand, it shows the system works and people are being held accountable for misdeeds. On the other hand, it’s always a bad day when the public trust is violated and it’s proven.”