Defining nepotism is all relative

It’s not nepotism if you have the qualifications to do the job, no matter how many relatives work in the state’s trial court.

That was the argument to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court by the lawyer for a Weymouth man whose appointment as a probation officer was rejected after it was learned it would have made him the seventh member of his family to have a job with the state’s Trial Court.

Under tough questioning from the full SJC, Boston attorney Kevin Powers, who is representing Stephen P. Anzalone Jr., argued today that his client’s degree in criminal justice trumped the fact that his father, sister, cousin, and a cousin by marriage are probation officers and an uncle and another cousin are court officers. Powers also argued that, because Anzalone would not have been serving in the same court as any of his relatives, his appointment would not be a violation of the court’s anti-nepotism policies.

Justice Judith Cowin seemed skeptical. What if you had 76 cousins who each had a position at one of the state’s 80 court sites, she asked. “Are you saying that would not be nepotism?”

“If those relatives are qualified, yes,” it would not be nepotism, Powers responded.

The case is on appeal to the SJC after Anzalone, who now works for State Auditor Joseph DeNucci, filed suit when Robert Mulligan, the trial court’s chief justice of administration and management, nixed Anzalone’s appointment as a probation officer six months after the former substitute teacher was told he had the job by Probation Commissioner John O’Brien.

The case, first reported on CommonWealth’s website in February, offers a glimpse inside the probation service, which critics claim is used as a patronage haven for the Legislature.

The probation service is part of the Trial Court overseen by Mulligan. but O’Brien controls his own $160 million budget and lawmakers have given him the power to hire whomever he pleases, as long as he abides by court procedures. The case came up for review as Mulligan and SJC Chief Justice Margaret Marshall are lobbying for greater oversight over the probation service.

In court briefs filed by the Attorney General’s office, Mulligan said he rejected Anzalone’s appointment because his job application failed to list three family members who work for the trial court despite the mandate that all relatives by blood and marriage be included on the application.

According to court filings, Stephen Anzalone’s father, Joseph P. Anzalone, is a probation officer in Malden District Court making $82,079, and his sister Kathryn is on the payroll for $37,519 as an associate probation officer in Plymouth District Court. A cousin, Mary Pendergast, was an associate probation officer at the time Anzalone filed his application for a probation job and Anzalone’s cousin by marriage, Alexander Milton, is also a probation officer earning $52,446. Analone’s uncle, Joseph Pendergast, is a court officer making $62,631, as is his cousin, Joseph Pendergast Jr., who makes $47,510.

Assistant Attorney General Ronald F. Kehoe, who is representing Mulligan, told the court that when O’Brien awarded the probation job to Anzalone, the confirmation letter noted the appointment was “subject to the approval” of Mulligan. Kehoe said that once the chief justice discovered how many relatives Anzalone had on the payroll and how many were not listed on his application, the die was cast.

“The standard is ‘enough is enough,’” Kehoe told the panel. “We can’t have people playing games with what they disclose.”

Powers claimed that O’Brien’s appointment of Anzalone became effective once Mulligan failed to act on it within the 14 days allotted by state statute. He said the Legislature approved the 14-day review period so applicants “aren’t simply hung out to dry for an indefinite period of time.”

But under questioning from Justice Roderick Ireland, Kehoe conceded that Anzalone’s exclusion of relatives on his application could be grounds for Mulligan to rescind the job offer even if the appointment had been approved.

While it’s foolhardy to guess what the SJC will decide based on the tenor of the questions, most justices were clearly focused on how favoritism could eat away at public confidence in the system.

“There’s a strong public interest reason for that [rule against nepotism], not only to prevent nepotism but to prevent the appearance of nepotism,” said Chief Justice Marshall.

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.

Powers said he has 40 cousins in Massachusetts and has no clue where they all work, intimating Anzalone may have inadvertently left their names off his application. “You can’t be assumed to know all your cousins,” he told the court.

But outside the courtroom he would not say whether his client was aware of his cousins’ jobs. Two of the three people he did not list are the children of the uncle he did include on his application.