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Lawmakers worry about probation case fallout

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo says he is not a target of the probation investigation. He counted John J. O’Brien, the indicted former probation commissioner, as a friend.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff /File 2012

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo says he is not a target of the probation investigation. He counted John J. O’Brien, the indicted former probation commissioner, as a friend.

As a federal grand jury continues to call politicians and employees to testify in the probation scandal, state lawmakers say they are becoming increasingly concerned that they may have to launch a new session next year with the threat of indictments hanging over Beacon Hill.

One of the first tasks of the new year is to elect a new leader.

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The speaker of the House, Robert A. DeLeo, says he is not a target of the investigation, but more than two years after the scandal broke, prosecutors are focusing on DeLeo’s former top allies and hiring decisions that he may have influenced.

Prosecutors have zeroed in on Representative Thomas ­Petrolati, DeLeo’s former speaker pro tempore, who has been described as the patronage king of Western Massachusetts because of his ability to find jobs for his friends and supporters.

DeLeo, who called indicted former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien a friend, was one of the most successful politicians in helping applicants land probation jobs.

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One of those job applicants was Brian Mirasolo, his godson, who at 28 became the youngest chief probation officer in the state. His father, Leonard Mirasolo, was a top aide to DeLeo before retiring this year. Among his duties was handling the Probation Department budget for DeLeo.

Despite DeLeo’s assurances that he is not a target, lawmakers are worried. They do not want to repeat their embar­rassing vote of 2009, when they made Salvatore F. DiMasi speaker for a third full term weeks before he left amid a federal investigation. He is now serving an eight-year sentence on corruption charges.

“People are very concerned they’ll take a vote for speaker and then there’ll be a repeat of what happened under ­DiMasi,” said a veteran lawmaker. “Fooled once is one thing. But fooled twice will be very hard to explain to constituents.”

Prosecutors seeking to unravel the relationships between politicians and probation have already immunized former House speaker Thomas Finneran, said two people briefed on the arrangement. Finneran transferred hiring power from judges to O’Brien, a friend and jogging partner, in 2001. Finneran, who is now working as a lobbyist after leaving his radio talk show in May, could possibly detail the political maneuvering that turned the Probation Department into a patronage haven.

A succession of Probation Department employees appear­ing before a grand jury in Worcester in recent weeks have been asked how they got their jobs and whether they had to donate to politicians before they were hired or to advance their careers.

Prosecutors have focused on one of the most controversial initiatives of O’Brien’s 12 years as probation commissioner, the electronic monitoring program, according to several lawyers whose clients have appeared before the grand jury.

Among the politically connected hired for the electronic monitoring program was Petrolati’s wife, Kathleen, who probation officials have said was chosen without any experience or relevant education and still works as a $106,000-a-year regional ­director.

Brian Mirasolo also worked in electronic monitoring from May 2009 until January 2011.

The patronage-laden program employed more people to monitor criminals wearing ankle bracelets than any other state’s program, according to a 2010 Globe review.

O’Brien and two aides, ­Elizabeth Tavares and William H. Burke III, were indicted by a federal grand jury in March on charges of devising a hiring process for regular probation officers that was rigged to ­favor candidates with powerful sponsors.

But there was no hiring process, not even a sham one, for those hired for the electronic monitoring program, who were assigned to one of three centers across the state, the Globe’s Spotlight Team reported in 2010. So it was especially easy for the probation commissioner, O’Brien, to dole out these jobs to the candidates of his choice.

Many employees in this program have been asked specifically about Petrolati: whether he was their sponsor and whether he asked them to attend his fund-raisers, said several lawyers whose clients have been to the grand jury.

Even employees from Eastern Massachusetts, who would have little reason to know the Ludlow Democrat, were asked about him, lawyers said.

Petrolati’s lawyer, John Pucci, called the probation probe probably “the most inten­sive investigation in the history of the US attorney’s ­office, other than the Whitey Bulger affair.” Pucci predicted that in the end prosecutors will conclude that Petrolati did nothing wrong.

“As far as I can tell, this is a rerun of the Ware investigation conducted in the star chamber of a grand jury without any public scrutiny or judicial oversight,” said Pucci.

He was referring to independent counsel Paul F. Ware, hired by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2010 to investigate probation.

“A lot of the suggestions and allegations as to Tom ­Petrolati are a myth and not reality,” Pucci said. “I don’t ­expect the feds to be able to make a case out of it, because there isn’t one.”

Prosecutors have also asked about the probation hiring spree that took place between May and July of 2008, according to lawyers whose clients have testified before the grand jury. That was around the time the Legislature poured money into the Probation Department budget, offering more than either the House or Senate requested.

It was also around the time that the race to succeed ­DiMasi was heating up. Supporters of his opponent, Representative John Rogers of Norwood, asserted that some of the new jobs were handed out to lawmakers to gain their support for DeLeo, who was then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

DeLeo has repeatedly ­denied those assertions.

DeLeo’s spokesman, Seth Gitell, would not answer specific questions about DeLeo’s involvement in the case.

“The speaker has repeatedly stated that his lawyer has ­informed him that he is not a target of this investigation, and there has been no change in that status,” Gitell said.

Mirasolo’s lawyer, Thomas Frongillo, who is also representing the Legislature, would not say whether Mirasolo is possibly facing charges.

Besides the hiring of electronic monitoring employees, O’Brien’s awarding of a multimillion dollar contract for electronic monitoring services and equipment was controversial. He picked a Nebraska company, iSECUREtrac, even though it was the fourth-lowest bidder out of seven and had problems in other states.

Even before the contract was awarded, the trial court’s chief administrative justice, Robert A. Mulligan, raised questions about the vendor, according to documents ­obtained by the Globe.

Mulligan was concerned because New Jersey had terminated its contract with iSECUREtrac for cause. He wanted to know the details.

In a letter to Mulligan’s ­office, Christopher J. Bulger, O’Brien’s counsel at the time, said Kathleen Petrolati played a significant role in the selection of the vendor, but added that he contacted New Jersey officials and was confident “the selection process was thorough and fair.”

But the correspondence with the New Jersey officials should have been anything but reassuring.

Philip J. Michaels, assistant director of New Jersey’s Depart­ment of the Treasury, said the contract was canceled because the state’s Parole Board had complained that the company’s equipment “caused false tampering alarms” and had “other connection and fitting problems.

“My decision letter also ­determined that it was a ­potential threat to the citizenry of New Jersey and that it was in our best interest to go with another vendor,” he wrote.

The Probation Department entered into a $2 million contract anyway, a contract that was not renewed when it expired. The bracelets did not function as promised. They triggered false alarms here, as they did in New Jersey.

When he was inspector general, Gregory Sullivan investigated the awarding of the contract and concluded that O’Brien followed a “deeply flawed” procurement process.

The award, he wrote, raised suspicions that the selection was based on “favoritism, fraud or improper influence.”

The chief executive of iSECUREtrac­ would not say whether he had been called to the grand jury. “I can’t comment on something like that,” said Lincoln Zehr.

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.
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