Probation chief kept detailed records on who backed job applicants
Two views of database emerge
The patronage probe at the state’s Probation Department has taken a startling new turn, with agency officials disclosing to investigators that they maintain a database of people who contact the agency to recommend someone for a job or a promotion.
The database, according to sources, lists the person applying for a job or promotion, the people recommending that person, and the outcome of the hiring process. The sources say the names of the individuals recommending people for jobs is a who’s who of Massachusetts government officials, including prominent state lawmakers from both political parties, US congressmen, judges, and officials from both the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices.
The list surfaced as part of an investigation by independent counsel Paul Ware into patronage practices at the Probation Department. Ware was appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court in May following two stories in The Boston Globe alleging that patronage was “job one” at the agency. The SJC judges also placed Probation Commissioner John O’Brien on paid administrative leave.
Ware apparently learned about the database while taking testimony from Maria Walsh, manager of intergovernmental relations at probation. Sources say she was in charge of maintaining and updating the database.
At probation, the recommendations were an integral part of the hiring process. Sources say candidates were first screened to make sure they met minimum educational and experience requirements. Qualified applicants were then interviewed by a three-person panel at the local court where the job opening existed. That group would narrow the field of applicants to eight and those eight would be separately interviewed and ranked by top aides to O’Brien. At each step of the process, a job candidate’s references and political supporters would be provided to interviewers.
One source who has access to the probation database showed a printout of it to a CommonWealth reporter and also shared some names from it. The source declined to turn over a copy of the printout or let the reporter study the document. The printout appeared to be nearly an inch thick, indicating the practice of recommending people for jobs at probation was widespread and goes well beyond Rep. Thomas Petrolati, the third-ranking House leader who has been subpoenaed by Ware to testify. Petrolati tried to quash the subpoena, but the SJC ruled against him last month. Petrolati’s lawyer said the Ludlow lawmaker has not given testimony yet.
According to sources, scores of top officials or their aides are on probation’s list, including House and Senate leaders from both parties, the former chief of staff of Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, top aides to Gov. Deval Patrick, and US Reps. Steven Lynch, John Olver, Richard Neal, James McGovern, William Delahunt, and Michael Capuano.
Sen. Richard Tisei of Wakefield, who is running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, is included in the probation database. Tisei said he has never talked to O’Brien but said it is possible he wrote a letter of recommendation years ago on behalf of a Lawrence probation officer seeking a promotion.
“He might have come in and I wrote a letter for him,” Tisei said. “I did know the family.”
James Leary, the former chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, also shows up on the list. Leary, a former state representative from Worcester and now an associate vice chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, declined comment.
Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for Patrick, denied the governor’s aides contacted probation officials about the person who was hired, but said the other three individuals were recommended. He said the recommendations were handled the way the governor’s office handles all job assistance requests.
“Constituents contact our office for assistance in gaining employment and to be responsive we sometimes refer them to agencies where they have applied for posted positions,” Sullivan said in a statement. “We expect any hiring decisions to be made on the merits and our involvement usually ends at the referral. Often, as in these cases, those individuals are not hired after going through the full process.”Supporters of O’Brien privately admit that a job candidate’s sponsors could influence the hiring process at probation, but they insist each person hired had to meet the qualifications for the job. One source said the probation database bears this out, with many job candidates identified as “NQ,” or not qualified.
What’s unclear is whether this “connected but qualified” defense – which is also used by the politicians recommending people for jobs at probation – will hold up. The Trial Court’s hiring manual states that “all appointments be made solely on the basis of merit. The practice and appearance of nepotism or favoritism in the hiring process are to be avoided.”