Key information missing

The Boston Globe’s  Spotlight Team is the gold standard in Massachusetts journalism, but the unit’s recent reports about the state’s probation department have omitted some key information.

The reports, which portrayed the department as a private employment agency for the politically well-connected, prompted top court officials to immediately suspend Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and appoint an independent counsel to investigate.

The Spotlight Team unearthed some dynamite material, but their key finding – that the agency employs at least 250 friends, relatives, and financial backers of politicians and top court officials – was never supported.

About 30 patronage hires were identified in the first story and a graphic accompanying it. Many of those employees had been named by other news outlets previously. The rest of the 250, roughly 10 percent of the agency’s workforce, were never identified. It’s an unusual omission for an investigative team known for its thoroughness and attention to detail. 

Tom Farragher, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Spotlight Team, said after the initial two-part series in May that he was keeping the list of 250 close to the vest for the moment. Others at the Globe suggested the team was trying to expand the list of politically connected employees and would publish it later.

After the second series was published in late July, again with no list, Farragher emailed me to say that more names were coming and the list was still being tweaked. “One issue is absolute, bullet-proof accuracy,” he said. “For instance, in some cases we know person A is related to person B, but is it a niece, a daughter, or a cousin? And there are related issues. But we’re kicking it around. We’re still at work.”

The work can’t be easy. It’s one thing to identify a politician’s relative, but how do you determine whether someone is a friend? Also, what’s the Globe’s definition of a financial backer? Is it someone who gave a one-time $50 donation to a candidate or someone who donated $5,000 over several years? 

At one point in its first story, the Spotlight Team reported that it had tried to contact, with little success, 30 of the 155 probation employees who’ve given at least $300 to one state legislator in recent years.

If $300 over several years is the Spotlight Team’s definition of a financial backer, it would include people like Michael Bulgaris of Byfield, the chief probation officer in Ipswich District Court. Bulgaris and his wife donated a total of $1,850 to local officials since 2002, including $900 to Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, $750 to Rep. Harriet Stanley of West Newbury, and $200 to Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins. Stanley is a Democrat and Tarr and Cousins are Republicans. Tarr, one of five Republicans in the Senate, is hardly a major power broker on Beacon Hill.  

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.

Farragher, in another email, said he was “extremely confident” of the Spotlight Team’s reporting. “In fact, our methodology, if anything, was conservative. Subsequent reporting has substantiated that,” he said. “Our focus now is on our next piece.”

It’s great stuff, but the team should put all the facts on the table.