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THOMAS FARRAGHER

Rebuilding the Probation Department

They must feel something like Gerald Ford did 40 Augusts ago, as he stood on the south lawn of the White House and watched Richard Nixon wave weirdly goodbye, step beneath the blades of a Marine Corps helicopter, and fly off into everlasting disgrace.

How would you like to be the guys who now run the Massachusetts Probation Department, whose senior leadership was convicted last week of converting a crucial criminal justice operation into a vast corrupt enterprise?

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Amid the smoldering wreckage left behind by former probation chief Jack O’Brien is a demoralized workforce, still marbled with some of his meritless hires. There’s also the reputation of a once nationally acclaimed agency that atrophied into a sad punch line.

The reconstruction work belongs to new Probation Commissioner Edward Dolan, a former chief of the state Department of Youth Services and state Parole Board, and Court Administrator Lewis H. “Harry” Spence, a former state social services commissioner whose skills as a turnaround specialist will now be supremely tested.

The wounds are raw. And they run deep. How many probation officers do you think are proudly pulling out their badges at backyard cookouts across the Commonwealth this summer?

“The implication of that is that somehow every single person who was hired or promoted under O’Brien is evil,’’ Spence told me yesterday inside the stately Pemberton Square courthouse. “That’s not the case. These are people who are playing by the rules, some of them humiliated by the rules, but those were the rules and if they wanted to do probation work and advance in it, they had to play by these goddamned rules.’’

What an operation. Careers were ruined. Reputations sullied. Good people who worked hard to do this critical work of supervising offenders in the community were chased from it.

When the verdict was read at the federal courthouse last week, Dolan was sitting where O’Brien once sat, in his office next to the State House. Workers who once aligned with O’Brien wondered what it meant for them, for their careers, for their institution.

“No matter what side of the verdict you’re on, you still knew these people,’’ Dolan said. “You worked with them. It’s a traumatic event no matter what you think.’’ The antidote? Perform solidly. Care about your work. Earn your promotion.

“What I’ve told people is that I can’t go back and revisit how you all got here. I can’t. It’s not productive.’’

Dolan and Spence are right when they point out O’Brien’s corruption was not absolute. There are good, well-educated, hard-working probation officers who want to cleanse the stain of last week’s verdict. I have heard from many of them. Some are cheering on the new leadership team.

Count among the cheerleaders one of the candidates for the job Dolan got. Bernie Fitzgerald worked for the Probation Department for 41 years, nearly 30 as chief probation officer at Dorchester District Court, one of the state’s busiest. He hired talented people and let them do good, ground-breaking work. He also stood up to O’Brien, who nevertheless sent him employees he didn’t want. He watched in dismay as O’Brien dismantled the sterling reputation his predecessors worked hard to build.

“We were professionals and we were being recognized nationally,’’ Fitzgerald said. Then, in 1997, came O’Brien. “He was in over his head right from the beginning,’’ Fitzgerald said. “It was in such horrible shape by the time he left.’’

Fitzgerald retired in 2012, but remains active in national probation organizations. Maybe Dolan and Spence should listen to people like him, who know that the concept of probation, after all, was invented right here in Boston by bootmaker John Augustus in 1841.

A quick cup of coffee couldn’t hurt. “Hey, I’d love to,’’ Fitzgerald said.

Spence said he heard widespread speculation that the probation defendants would be cleared or only nicked by the federal jury. Then came sweeping convictions.

“Whoa! I mean, it was bracing,’’ Spence said. “I think it means that the behaviors that occurred in that decade are declared definitively to be not only wrong, but illegal and therefore at an end.’’

Let reconstruction begin.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.
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