The independent counsel’s report that staggered the state Probation Department yesterday exposed evidence of a corrosive partnership with state lawmakers who for years have used the agency as a sort of private employment agency, knowing that as long as they fed the agency’s budget, jobs for their supporters would follow.
Paul F. Ware Jr.’s scathing report focused on the “pervasive fraud” within the department run by Commissioner John J. O’Brien, but Ware uncovered what has been an open secret on Beacon Hill: State lawmakers, many of them, have hijacked probation hiring for their friends, relatives, and supporters.
Ware encouraged other investigators to examine a system in which probation officials raise campaign cash on state property, secret lists of legislator-backed candidates are passed along on yellow Post-it notes, and hiring based on merit is a relic.
”Commissioner O’Brien went to extraordinary lengths to placate important politicians by ensuring the success of their preferred candidate,” Ware wrote.
After the Legislature voted to give O’Brien extensive control over probation hiring in 2001, job requests poured in from dozens of legislators, both powerful and obscure. In one day alone, the department’s former legislative liaison testified, O’Brien received recommendations from six legislators for 17 jobs. The agency kept a list tracking the names of candidates and their patrons that ran 130 pages long.
One call to the commissioner’s office was especially blunt. Former state representative William McManus of Worcester left the message that he “has PO he wants to take care of, $70,000 salary range.”
Ware could not prove that any individual legislator explicitly asked for campaign contributions in exchange for probation jobs, which could constitute illegal bribery. But he said statistical evidence suggests that such exchanges may have happened.
Republican lawmakers called for immediate and dramatic action. Senator Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, said the report “reads like a novel that was written about corruption on Beacon Hill, and the problem is it’s not fiction.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo issued a statement last night saying: “The independent counsel’s report appears to make some very disturbing allegations. I will be closely reviewing its findings to determine if any legislative action is appropriate.”
Ware identified DeLeo and one of his top lieutenants, state Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, as two of the main beneficiaries of O’Brien’s patronage system. But Ware has said he doesn’t believe DeLeo broke the law. Petrolati, who was subpoenaed to testify, refused to cooperate with Ware’s investigation.
Ware found that O’Brien constructed an elaborate sham hiring process that appeared to follow rules and regulations. In reality, O’Brien awarded “valuable positions with substantial salaries and benefits” to candidates sponsored by his political allies, with little regard for their qualifications.
Ware found only isolated violations of law by legislators, but emphasized that his focus was on probation first.
The report, however, was forwarded to federal and state law enforcement officials, as well as the state inspector general and the Board of Bar Overseers, for “such action any of them may deem appropriate.”
Though rank-and-file members asked for jobs, high-ranking legislators had the most success.
Former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, whose favored candidates were kept on a separate spreadsheet; former Senate president Robert Travaglini; DeLeo; and Speaker Pro Tempore Petrolati all had remarkable track records placing job seekers or getting promotions for preferred employees. Nearly two-thirds of the candidates DeLeo sponsored, for example, were hired or promoted. His godson, Brian Mirasolo, was promoted after DeLeo spoke to the commissioner, one of O’Brien’s deputies testified.
Petrolati, widely viewed as the “king of patronage” in Western Massachusetts because of his ability to place job seekers, was not among the report’s 10 most frequent sponsors. Petrolati, however, was extremely close to deputy commissioner William Burke, who did most of the hiring in Western Massachusetts. Burke testified that Petrolati came to him directly and that he often acted on the lawmaker’s requests without going through the commissioner’s office.
Other frequent sponsors included Senate Ways and Means chairman Steven C. Panagiotakis, who is leaving the Senate this year, as well as Senators Stephen M. Brewer of Barre; John E. Hart of South Boston; Marc R. Pacheco of Taunton; Mark C. Montigny of New Bedford; Thomas M. McGee of Lynn; and former senator Robert Creedon of Brockton. All are Democrats.
O’Brien made sure that politically connected candidates were successful, Ware wrote.
In 2005, the commissioner told Pacheco that his choice for assistant chief probation officer in Taunton District Court would get the job, or the job would not be filled at all, according to the candidate, Joe Dooley. Dooley received the promotion and is now Taunton’s chief probation officer.
Pacheco told Ware a different story, denying he ever made the statement to Dooley. Ware, however, said he believes Dooley. Ware concluded that top probation officials did more than just dole out jobs to lawmakers. They also raised money for their campaigns, urging employees to donate and explicitly linking the contributions to lawmakers’ support for the department’s budget.
O’Brien’s top lieutenants rounded up employees to attend Petrolati’s annual fund-raiser in Ludlow, and at least one makeshift fund-raiser was held for Petrolati in the cafeteria at One Ashburton Place, the state office building where the Probation Department has its headquarters.
”I remember Commissioner O’Brien saying on one occasion, there’s going to be a party at someone’s table for Tommy Petrolati,” Deputy Commissioner John Cremens testified.