In a recent private meeting, the House speaker and Senate president were stunned when Governor Deval Patrick, according to a person briefed on the conversation, raised the prospect of US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz running for governor and spoke favorably of the prosecutor whose investigation of the state Probation Department has rattled the Legislature.
According to the person, Patrick said the federal prosecutor, whose Puerto Rican-born parents raised her in a New York public housing project, has a great story to tell about her successful legal career. He left the impression he was suggesting that the two should meet her.
Asked about the conversation, Patrick’s director of communications, Brendan Ryan, said any interpretation that the governor had been trying to promote Ortiz as a gubernatorial candidate is “patently false.’’ Ryan would not comment further.
The person briefed on the discussion said Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo were flabbergasted to think that Patrick would raise a possible Ortiz candidacy with them. Ortiz’s criminal bureau has been focused on several top legislative leaders and some of their involvement over the past decade in the hiring of probation officers.
Patrick had cleared the room of others attending the weekly Beacon Hill leadership meeting before the discussion turned to the 2014 race for governor, the person said. None of the three at the meeting on Nov. 26 in DeLeo’s office would comment to the Globe. The meetings are held on the condition that the participants will not speak publicly about the discussions.
Ortiz, who has made no public comments about a political future, has been promoted by some Democratic insiders as a potential gubernatorial candidate. But as a federal employee, she is barred by the federal Hatch Act from participating in politics. In order to run for governor, she would have to resign the post she has held since January 2010.
“Ms. Ortiz is here at the pleasure of the president,’’ said her spokeswoman Christina DiIorio Sterling. “She plans to stay on and continue advancing the mission of the office.’’
The closed-door discussion occurred as Patrick’s close political ally, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, is struggling to stay viable as a candidate for the party’s nomination in 2014. Aides say Patrick holds Murray in high regard and would support him if he runs.
But the lieutenant governor has taken a heavy political hit in the last year because of ties with Michael E. McLaughlin, the controversial former director of the Chelsea Housing Authority.
McLaughlin’s political fund-raising for Murray is under investigation by Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office. Ortiz’s office is also investigating whether McLaughlin diverted agency funds for his personal use.
In an October poll by the Globe, 27 percent offered a favorable opinion of the lieutenant governor, compared with 22 percent who said they viewed him unfavorably.
Murray, who has worked closely with Patrick and his staff for the past six years, has told political associates that he is testing the political waters for a gubernatorial campaign. He is throwing a major fund-raiser next week in Worcester, his hometown, at which he is expected to raise about $80,000. He will make a final decision on entering the race in the next few months, an adviser said Thursday.
Both DeLeo and Murray brushed aside the governor’s comments, noting that they were not in a position to meet with Ortiz, considering the ongoing investigation that has rattled Beacon Hill, according to the person. A federal grand jury sitting in Worcester has solicited testimony from a slew of lawmakers and others since last spring.
The Senate president is particularly sensitive to the swirling rumors over the investigation, having just gone through a reelection campaign in which her Republican opponent, Thomas F. Keyes, raised the issue. He repeatedly referred to court records in the state probation scandal indicating that she had recommended unqualified individuals for probation jobs. Murray has denied wrongdoing.
DeLeo and Murray have said that they are not targets of the investigation and have insisted that they have they done nothing wrong. Still, Ortiz’s investigation has created an undercurrent of anxiety in the State House that Beacon Hill could be rocked by another round of prosecutions.
Prosecutors have particularly focused on Representative Thomas Petrolati, a Ludlow Democrat who served as speaker pro tempore until DeLeo removed him as the probation scandal heated up two years ago.
The US attorney’s office’s strong focus on the probation controversy adds a particular sensitivity to the speculation that Ortiz, a 1978 George Washington Law School graduate, is considering becoming a candidate.
It could open her to charges by her opponents and others that she has used the investigation into political leaders to advance her political ambitions. Ortiz, however, would be among a crowd of regional federal prosecutors who have used their office to create a high public profile that allows them to run for office.
For example, William F. Weld, who served as US attorney in Boston in the early and mid-1980s, relentlessly pursued former mayor Kevin H. White. No charges were ever brought against White, but the intense publicity gave Weld the ability to parlay that investigation and others into a successful campaign for governor in 1990.
Other US attorneys who went on to successful political careers included former mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and former governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona, now US secretary of homeland security.