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letters | patronage system on trial

It’s a stretch to recast centuries-old spoils system as bribery

Since 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected president, the spoils system has been a fixture of American political culture. Today, almost 200 years later, it is rather incredible that the US attorney would indict John O’Brien, the former Massachusetts probation chief, on bribery charges for engaging in the centuries-old practice of political patronage. Political loyalty does in fact have a value, and in some cases that attribute arguably could vault a candidate for a government job over another candidate ostensibly more qualified.

In its April 30 editorial “O’Brien deserves indictment, but real villain is the system,” The Globe, like the state jury that acquitted O’Brien of essentially the same charges, suggests that the notion of being guilty of politics is hard to accept. The Globe says it’s the system that is to blame, but there is wrongdoing here. This is not the routine practice of appointing a brother-in-law to an existing government agency. Rather, it is O’Brien and members of the Legislature colluding to create a job warehouse for the connected. The collusion is well documented. Even so, it is logically impossible for O’Brien to be the only guilty party in this vicious cycle.

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A prosecutor who could not get a conviction in what appeared to be a slam-dunk case against a firefighter collecting disability while competing in bodybuilding contests does not have much of a chance convincing a jury that the ancient spoils system has suddenly become bribery.

Jim Miara


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