Petrolati not out of hot water in probe

Attorney says report clears client, but probation investigator says no

The attorney for  for State Rep. Thomas Petrolati says a scathing report on probation hiring abuse “totally vindicates” his client but the independent counsel who conducted the probe said that claim is a “distortion” of his findings.

“I would say that it verifies what we’ve believed all along, that there is absolutely no evidence of any criminal misconduct by Tom Petrolati,” says John Pucci, the Springfield attorney who is representing the Ludlow Democrat. Petrolati “was a small piece of the very big collection of issues in the probation department and played no role in the systemwide abuse that the report alleges was found in the agency.”

But Paul Ware, the Boston lawyer appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court to investigate allegations of a corrupt hiring process in the Probation Department, said his focus was on probation, not the Legislature, and much of what he learned about Petrolati was not included in the report but is being referred to law enforcement officials.

“I think there was evidence elicited in the course of the investigation about Rep. Petrolati’s actions which warrants others to investigate more closely,” Ware said in an interview today. “Beyond the report, there’s a body of evidence we gathered that was not specific to what I was charged with investigating that involved Rep. Petrolati, which I did not include in the report. That information will be in the hands of the US attorney and attorney general.”

Asked if the information about Petrolati warranted criminal charges, Ware said, “That call will have to be made by the US attorney and her offices in Springfield and Boston.”

Ware released his scathing 307-page report yesterday that outlined “systemic abuse and corruption” in the state’s Probation Department, where politically connected candidates were far more likely to get jobs than other qualified applicants. He concluded that suspended Commissioner of Probation John O’Brien should be terminated and the report’s evidence regarding O’Brien and his top lieutenants be forwarded to state and federal prosecutors for potential criminal investigations and the state’s Board of Bar Overseers for disciplinary actions against probation employees who are lawyers.

Ware was tasked with the investigation by the SJC following a series of reports by the Boston Globe Spotlight team, as well as stories in CommonWealth, which showed political connections and contributions may play a major role in landing plum positions at probation. Ware found that O’Brien’s fealty to legislators’ recommendations resulted in increased budgets and autonomy at a time of dwindling resources and calls for government reforms.

A repeated mantra by probation employees who testified was they were doing nothing different from what every other state agency did in hiring. Ware said that’s a skewed view.

“In the sense that, in every agency, recommendations are made and some of those recommendations may help someone to be hired – in that sense, yes, every agency is doing it,” Ware said. “But I don’t think it’s characteristic of state government in general that hiring and promotion are pervasively influenced solely by political power and political relationships as is the case at probation.”

Petrolati was among nearly 100 people who were subpoenaed to testify in Ware’s probe but after unsuccessfully challenging the subpoeana, Petrolati invoked his fifth Amendment rights. Petrolati’s wife, Kathleen, a regional supervisor in the probation department, also invoked her right against self-incrimination.

Petrolati was identified by the Globe as the “king of patronage” in western Massachusetts. It listed several people with connections to him or contributors who were hired by O’Brien. One case the Globe cited was Robert Ryan, husband of Petrolati’s chief of staff, who was hired as chief probation officer in Eastern Hampshire District Court. But Ware concluded that Ryan’s 25 years with the federal probation service, which came after a stint as a probation officer with the state, made him “extremely well-qualified” for the position. Ware also said there was no evidence that Petrolati had influenced his hiring.

Pucci said that was a key finding in exonerating Petrolati. “It totally vindicates and effectively approves the hiring of Rob Ryan,” said Pucci. “All the charges were examined and dismissed by Mr. Ware.”

Pucci also pointed out that Petrolati was not even on Ware’s top 10 list of legislators who sponsored candidates for jobs. Ware, though, said that is misleading and pointed to pieces of his report that showed Petrolati often used other people, including an ally, Deputy Commissioner William Burke, who hired Petrolati’s candidates outside of normal channels.

“Representative Thomas Petrolati is not among the 10 legislators most frequently listed on the Sponsor Lists, but former Deputy Commissioner Burke testified that he sometimes received calls with the names of favored candidates for positions in western Massachusetts from Petrolati directly, and acted on them without going through the Commissioner,” Ware wrote. “That, plus additional evidence, suggests that Petrolati’s involvement in patronage hiring within Probation is far greater than the Sponsor Lists demonstrate.”

The SJC sent boxes of exhibits that Ware gathered to the various investigative agencies and has ordered Chief Justice of Administration and Management Robert Mulligan and Ronald Corbett, the acting administrator of probation who took over O’Brien’s job, to undertake a full investigation and housecleaning at the probation department and file monthly reports of their progress.

There was little mention of Corbett in Ware’s report, other than he had been passed over in 1997 in favor of O’Brien for the commissioner’s post despite what appeared to be superior qualifications. Ware’s report says then-Chief Justice of Administration and Management John Irwin lowered the qualifications, thus allowing O’Brien to be picked. After his appointment, O’Brien hired two of Irwin’s relatives, which was reported by CommonWealth in February of this year.

CommonWealth also reported in September that Corbett had made a number of donations to politicians, including several who Ware identified as some of the most active lawmakers in making recommendations for jobs and receiving large amounts of political donations.

Ware said he has little concern that Corbett was compromised in the way O’Brien and his top lieutenants are.

“I think Mr. Corbett’s donations were within a range of reasonableness,” Ware said. “I don’t think it’s the case that under no circumstances if someone is a government employee can he or she make a political donation. I don’t think that’s right, either. I only have a level of distress when those donations become specifically designated or designed with getting a job or getting promoted.”

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

Ware said his assertion in the report that the judiciary, and especially Mulligan, could have done more to cease the abuse was his being a “Monday morning quarterback.” He said the problem lay with the Legislature, which effectively removed any oversight of probation from the judges in a 2001 reform.

“In retrospect, in my role as Monday morning quarterback, I can identify some things that probably the judiciary could have done differently,” Ware said. “There were district judges who blew the whistle. Chief Justice Mulligan took steps to challenge Commissioner O’Brien. In a number of instances it was fair to say he was not told the truth. But in the broadest sense, it’s fair to say other things could have been done and should have been done.”