In probation patronage case, some misdeeds go unpunished

THE CORRUPTION that pervaded the state Probation Department was a two-way deal: Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and his aides pretended to conduct a merit-based search for vacant positions that went to candidates with political connections, while legislators ensured a steady supply of patronage jobs by inflating O’Brien’s budget year after year. Federal prosecutors have now made it clear they believe this arrangement was illegal. On March 23, O’Brien and two of his former aides were indicted on racketeering charges; prosecutors accuse them of phonying up and then mailing documents that masked a broader scheme to hire legislators’ cronies.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office deserves credit for seeking these indictments. But the fact that, so far, no elected official has been charged would seem to ignore half of the equation — and speaks to the limited reach of state and federal public-corruption laws.

Federal and state anti-corruption laws are highly effective against officials who, like former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson, are caught on camera stuffing bribes in their clothing, or who, like former House Speaker Sal DiMasi, leave a paper trail documenting improper personal gains. But not all corruption involves monetary greed. Having the bureaucratic sway to find a safe job for a friend or key political supporter is a powerful currency on Beacon Hill; legislators obtained it by showering money needlessly on O’Brien’s agency. Even if no elected or appointed official pocketed any money - and even if “patronage in and of itself is not illegal,’’ as Ortiz said at her press conference - this was still a squandering of public resources for politicians’ personal benefit.


For taxpayers, these politically wired appointments carry a stiff price tag. Beyond wage and pension costs that extend deep into the future, the loss of opportunity to qualified candidates without connections is also deeply damaging to the public interest - as is the continuing difficulty of managing around politically sponsored workers who are often seen as untouchable. The resulting public cynicism can be paralyzing.

The political culture in Massachusetts has surely improved since the James Michael Curley era. Yet the unashamed vigor with which top legislative leaders still defend offering “recommendations’’ to the agencies is remarkable. Some changes in the rules might help - a restriction on “recommendations’’ from elected officials, a more transparent hiring process for public jobs that makes patronage easier to sniff out. But the broader problem is cultural: The one-party dominance of Beacon Hill surely hurts. What the Legislature needs is candidates of either party who are committed to opening up the state’s political culture, not finding comfy perches for their friends.