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Yvonne Abraham

Marty Walsh misses the point in probation case

You can take the mayor out of the Legislature, but apparently you can’t take the Legislature out of the mayor.

In a gobsmacking display of blinkered vision, Mayor Marty Walsh weighed in on the corruption trial of former Probation Department chief John O’Brien on Tuesday, calling the case “bizarre” and the guilty verdict “a sad day for Massachusetts.”

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Asked about it on WGBH radio, Walsh said he thought O’Brien was not guilty of a crime — that the jury got it wrong. Walsh trotted out the same argument defense lawyers tried: Helping people get jobs is what everybody does, including legislators and even judges. In other words: everybody is guilty, or nobody is. Nothing to see here, folks!

Walsh called O’Brien a good guy who got caught up in the system. He made it clear he reads the verdict personally, as a criticism of legislators — “easy targets” — complaining, “That’s why people don’t stay in politics today.”

Oh, brother. I love that this mayor can’t help but answer a question honestly. But this answer? It drives me batty that he and so many Beacon Hill types see what O’Brien did as just politics as usual. When actually, what he did was — and now it’s official — criminal.

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I’ve said this a gazillion times, but once more, for the mayor: Probation jobs aren’t like jobs shelving books in a library or working metal detectors in a courthouse. The scheme over which O’Brien presided made a mockery of a profession that is on the front lines of our criminal justice system. Great probation officers keep offenders out of jail, moving them off destructive paths and onto productive ones where they’re contributing to society, rather than terrorizing it. The best probation officers save not just money, but lives.

The job requires immense skill and dedication. But under O’Brien, candidates with that skill and dedication were repeatedly passed over for politically connected ones, some of them abysmally underqualified. He and his underlings established a sham hiring process, faking it to make it look like their preferred candidates were the most qualified.

They lied because they didn’t really care about the work. While others in the justice system were busting guts to be more effective, O’Brien’s probation department could not have been less interested. They collected no meaningful data. The only numbers that mattered were how many favors were done for the legislators who held their purse strings.

Good people paid for all of this. Exhibit A: Dee Kennedy. Fluent in Spanish, with two master’s degrees, decades of experience, and a gift for innovation, Kennedy should have been a probation commissioner’s dream. When the chief probation officer’s job came up in the West Roxbury courthouse, the top judge there urged O’Brien to appoint Kennedy. Instead, he chose James Rush, the elderly father of a state legislator. Rush’s two-year tenure was an epic disaster, ending with a sex- and race-discrimination suit.

Kennedy finally became a chief probation officer in Dorchester after O’Brien resigned. Who knows how many others suffered because of the scheme, including probationers who might have stayed out of trouble if the team in the West Roxbury courthouse had been better led?

The mayor has worked with enough probationers and others on the edge to know how important the work is. Which is why it boggles the mind that he would defend O’Brien. As he said himself in the same radio interview, “You can’t have a rigged system; it has to be clearly above board.”

Yet he just can’t seem to take off his legislator hat to see how rigged the system was, and how his city, and state, were hurt by it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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