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Patrick vetoes mandated background checks on future gambling panel staff

Provisions added to $72m midyear spending plan

Governor Deval Patrick vetoed Friday portions of a spending bill sent to him this week by the House and Senate requiring the Gaming Commission to conduct full criminal background checks and drug screenings on future employees.

A day after it arrived on his desk, Patrick signed a $72 million midyear spending bill that included additional funding for public assistance for low-income disabled residents, family shelters, legal aid, and youth jobs accounts that were in danger of running out of money before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

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The governor, however, rejected amendments to the bill that were added during floor debate in the House and Senate this week in response to an outcry over the attempted hiring of C. Stanley McGee as the interim executive director of the state gambling commission.

McGee, who works as assistant economic development secretary in the Patrick administration, turned down the job after some lawmakers, child advocates, and Treasurer Steven Grossman raised questions about his suitability for the post because of previously disclosed allegations that he sexually abused a teenage boy in Florida in 2007. McGee was never charged and settled a civil lawsuit with the boy’s family out of court.

Patrick struck the two sections of the bill that would have made criminal history checks, urine screenings, and State Police-approved fingerprints and photographs a prerequisite for employment at the commission. The bill would also have required background and credit checks.

“While the importance of thorough background investigations is unquestioned and already provided for the by the recently enacted legislation establishing the Gaming Commission, the highest levels of background checks and screening may not be necessary nor appropriate for every employee,’’ Patrick wrote in his veto letter to the House and Senate.

“Under the current law, the Gaming Commission has the discretion to make those decisions,’’ Patrick continued.

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House minority leader Brad Jones, who offered the amendment in the House to require the background checks, said that by vetoing provisions in the bill that had broad support among Democrats and Republicans, the governor was taking full responsibility for the commission’s future hiring.

“I think it’s disappointing,’’ Jones said. “Even the governor has acknowledged the commission suffers from a lack of focus, and I think that’s why we put this forth. Now he says they have all the tools they need, but they haven’t done the job, even though they have the tools. Any missteps going forward fall on the doorstep of the governor.’’

Representative Daniel Winslow, a Norfolk Republican, went further, warning that the governor’s veto could open the door to corruption. Winslow announced this week that he had hired a private investigator with his own campaign funds to look into the McGee case, but dropped that plan when McGee stepped down from the director’s position.

“Given the recent history of corruption on Beacon Hill, the House and Senate were clearly concerned that we need to have the highest degree of integrity for all employees of the Gaming Commission,’’ Winslow said Friday.

“Leaving weak links in the chain is an invitation for criminal interests to take advantage of every opportunity,’’ he said, citing the past hiring of reputed mobster James “Whitey’’ Bulger as a custodian in Suffolk Superior Court as an example of what could go wrong.

On Thursday, Patrick lamented what he described as distractions that have taken the focus of the commission off the main task of implementing expanded casino gambling in Massachusetts. He urged the commission to refocus itself promptly.

The governor’s communications director, Brendan Ryan, however, said that requiring all employees, even secretaries, to undergo drug and police background checks was unnecessary.

“The administration agrees that every hire needs to be of the highest integrity, but mandating urine tests for every potential receptionist seems like an overreach,’’ Ryan said. “The commission has the tools it needs to do the job it needs to do.’’

Asked whether receptionists should be put through the same screening process as high-level employees, Jones said, “Conceivably, no, but it doesn’t seem to this point that their high-level employees had gone through that, either. We want to create a scenario that’s above reproach, and so far they haven’t acted above reproach, so that’s why we have to act.’’

According to the Gaming Commission, McGee was already undergoing a State Police background check as a condition of his employment before he formally withdrew from the position on Wednesday.

“The commission appreciates that the governor recognized that provisions of this law as passed by the Legislature are already both comprehensive and effective,’’ said Karen Schwartzman, a spokeswoman for the Gaming Commission.

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