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Adrian Walker

Business as usual

During his first run for governor in 2006, Deval Patrick declared repeatedly that the old-boy culture of Beacon Hill would become a thing of the past. Patronage would be out, merit would be in. None of it was terribly original, but he said it all with such memorable intensity.

All of which makes Mark Conrad’s comeback in state government - as an administrator at Bridgewater State College - more than a surprise.

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You may not remember Conrad’s name, but I’m willing to bet you remember the mess that cost him his last state job. Conrad was head of the state Parole Board, the panel the governor forced to resign barely a year ago. Conrad and four other board members were pushed out for approving the 2008 release of Dominic Cinelli, a career criminal serving three life sentences. Cinelli killed Woburn police Officer John Maguire in December 2010 during a jewelry store heist.

Understand that in this case “forced to resign’’ is a euphemism for being fired.

The Cinelli case quickly became a political nightmare for Patrick, who struggled to explain how someone with such a lengthy criminal record could be judged safe to release. The governor said he was as outraged as the public and acted so decisively, and with such obvious indignation, that there seemed no chance that any member of the board would resurface in government.

Certainly that seemed true of Conrad, who endured, as chairman, much of the withering scrutiny that followed the Cinelli disaster. An ingratiating retired Milton police officer, he got to know Patrick when he volunteered to drive him during his 2006 campaign for governor. Patrick placed him on the board, and then put him in charge. That rapid progression always seemed like a stretch. Obviously, Conrad has law enforcement expertise, but he didn’t know any more about rehabilitating criminals than the next patrolman. He had never managed anything either. Tellingly, his replacement - Josh Wall, a distinguished former Suffolk County prosecutor - has a completely different background, one that fits the job.

But it turns out Conrad’s exile from the state employ was really more in the nature of a brief vacation. He assumed his new $80,000-a-year job as assistant to the vice president last October. Naturally, he was hired after a lengthy search. He landed the perfect hack job: good money, low profile.

Conrad declined to talk about his new job yesterday, referring questions to Bridgewater State spokesman Brian Baldwin. Baldwin said Conrad’s duties include overseeing a partnership with the city of New Bedford that will bring middle school students to the college campus during the summer. He said Conrad had been “on the president’s radar’’ all along because of his community work with the NAACP locally. He insisted that no one in the administration had suggested, urged, or demanded that Conrad be hired.

Obviously, I’m not saying the man should never be allowed to hold a job. But you would think spectacular failure at one management job in state government might be a problem when you apply for another. And the record is absolutely clear here: Mark Conrad made a mess of the Parole Board.

But he had the sense to go quietly when the administration needed him to take the hit, and perhaps he has lived to be rewarded. Conrad is, in the opinion of some in Patrick’s inner circle, the proverbial good guy. And this governor, for all his grand pronouncements on ethics reform and meritocracy, just likes some people, as we all do, and wants to do something for them.

Of course, that is the essence of business as usual. People like Michael McLaughlin, the former head of the Chelsea Housing Authority, and Jack O’Brien, once Conrad’s counterpart at the helm of the Probation Department, and now a man in legal limbo, also lived on personality, on stroking powerful egos and finding ways to make them happy. Reforming government is always a timely idea, but here’s why it never really happens: the lofty standards candidates use to chastise others never hold for their own guys.

Patrick would never have hired Conrad twice. Until he got to know him.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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