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Opinion | Tom Keane

Indictments, then politics as usual

Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

Former State Probation Commissioner John O’Brien stands outside US District Court after his arraignment.

TWO HIGH-PROFILE prosecutions — one against senior officials in the state’s Probation Department, another aimed at former treasurer Tim Cahill — are after more than mere convictions. They seek instead to change entirely the culture of politics in Massachusetts. More likely, all they’ll do is just drive deeper underground the behaviors they target.

Two weeks ago, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz unveiled indictments against the Probation Department’s former head, John O’Brien, as well as two senior staffers. Ortiz charged that the department routinely ignored civil service rules, “institut[ing] a hiring system that catered to requests of Massachusetts legislators.’’ Ten days later, state Attorney General Martha Coakley dropped her own bombshell, indicting Cahill and two of his aides for using Lottery advertisements to promote Cahill’s image while he was embroiled in a campaign for governor.

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In one case, the target is the age-old use of patronage. In the second, it is politicians routinely using their incumbency to burnish their credentials with voters.

The back-to-back indictments have caused much consternation among the political class. Patronage has been a common practice - and often seen as critical to effective governance - since the nation’s inception. Certainly, it’s an easy way to pay back folks for helping politicians in their campaigns. But it also helps make sure winners of an election get control of their offices, giving them the power they need to deliver on what they promised. Then too, particularly in immigrant cities such as Boston, patronage has been a way for those on the outside to make their way inside. When Irish-American politicians won, for example, they often gave jobs to their compatriots, thereby giving a helping hand to a marginalized group.

Good government groups, seemingly populated by folks who don’t need jobs and think politics should be a more elevated endeavor, despise patronage. That’s how we got civil service as well as the Supreme Court’s narrow 5-4 decision in a 1990 case (Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois) that barred “promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions based on party affiliation and support.’’

But, the Supreme Court notwithstanding, patronage still happens, largely because it’s human nature. Politicians want to reward their supporters (and, of course, they also trust them more than the supporters of those they just beat) and so they use any variety of ways - a strong recommendation being the simplest - to signal to those making hiring decisions who they favor and who they do not.

Meanwhile, Coakley’s target — self-promotion — also is commonly practiced. As many have pointed out in the days following Cahill’s indictment, what is now being called criminal is no different from the stuff politicians do every day, from putting their names on signs adorning public works projects to traveling around the state trumpeting community grants. All boost the name of the incumbent using resources paid for by the state.

The Supreme Court notwithstanding, patronage still happens, largely because it’s human nature.

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So are patronage and self-promotion now at an end? Not with these cases.

Ortiz alleges that O’Brien’s circumvention of civil service was extraordinarily heavy-handed, with a system in place that involved a charade of interviews even though the winning applicant was known in advance. Yet so far, Ortiz has not indicted any legislators. If that remains the case, then we have a remarkable curiosity. Those in power who ask for the favors are apparently immune while those who execute those requests are not. One almost feels sorry for the indicted. What were they supposed to do - say no, thereby angering the legislators who are, in effect, their bosses?

And in the case of Cahill there was also a kind of heavy-handedness. According to the attorney general, Cahill’s real mistake was a trail of damning e-mails ostensibly connecting the ads to his campaign strategy. (When, oh when will folks figure out that e-mails, tweets, and postings are not private conversations?) If Cahill had simply kept his intentions to himself, he wouldn’t be facing prosecution today.

The over-the-top nature of the abuses Ortiz and Coakley target suggest that, once things calm down, not much will have changed. The lesson will be: Don’t be obvious. Politicians will still want to build their team and they’ll still want to promote themselves. But in doing so, they’ll need to learn the art of being subtle.

Tom Keane, a former Boston city councilor, writes regularly for the Globe.
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