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.

Two very different views of the probation database are circulating among insiders who are aware of it. One group believes the list could become the smoking gun of Ware’s investigation, a roadmap showing how influence was peddled at probation. The other group insists the list is merely a bookkeeping manifestation of a practice that is commonplace on Beacon Hill and in private business: powerful individuals recommending people they know for jobs or promotions.

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.

A handful of current and former aides to Gov. Patrick were on the list, including David Morales and Brendan Ryan. One source told CommonWealth that the aides recommended at least four people for jobs or promotions at probation. Three of the applicants didn’t land the jobs, while the fourth, a former campaign worker for Patrick, was hired as a probation officer at Dorchester District Court. The four applicants either didn’t return phone calls or couldn’t be reached for 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.”

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.

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.

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.”