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Spotlight: 2010

Cracking open a patronage hiring scheme in the Probation Department

A 2010 Spotlight investigation shows a Massachusetts department where who you knew seemed to matter most.

John J. "Jack" O'Brien (left) was suspended as probation department commissioner after the Spotlight report. Representative Thomas Petrolati (right) resigned from a leadership position.John Tlumacki/Globe staff / File

Spotlight Team: Thomas Farragher (editor), Andrea Estes, Scott Allen, and Marcella Bombardieri


Everyone already knows that the Massachusetts Probation Service is rife with corruption. That was reporter Andrea Estes’ first thought when, in 2009, Spotlight editor Thomas Farragher approached her about investigating hiring practices at the department. For years, stories around Beacon Hill had pointed toward a “pay to play” system of hiring and promotions at the public agency, led at the time by John J. “Jack” O’Brien. Still, she got to work and was soon amazed by the scale of wrongdoing that she and her colleagues uncovered.

It seemed like an unlikely starting place for a groundbreaking Spotlight series, but that is exactly what the project became. “As soon as the story ran,” Estes recalls, “all hell broke loose.”

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The 2010 series introduced readers to a corrupt, ineffective agency where at least 250 employees were friends, relatives, or donors to state politicians and court officials. Many had secured jobs over vastly more qualified candidates. Several had received raises and promotions even after being accused of misconduct and sloppy work.

The first Spotlight story was published on May 23. On May 24, O’Brien — 12 years into his reign as commissioner — was suspended, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court launched an administrative inquiry into probation department practices.

Spotlight followed as O’Brien and two other department officials — Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III — faced charges related to running a fraudulent hiring scheme, to which they pleaded not guilty. (All three were convicted on some charges in 2014, but those convictions were overturned on appeal in 2016.)

Other public officials avoided court involvement but could not escape the long shadow the scandal cast. Longtime Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo was called by prosecutors an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the case. Representative Thomas Petrolati, whose wife was among the dozens of people connected to him hired by the department, resigned from a leadership position. (Both DeLeo and Petrolati denied accusations of wrongdoing and remained in office until last year.)

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How did patronage hiring go from an open secret to a judicial priority? Farragher and his team started digging — and didn’t stop. The team pored over records from 84 district and superior courts and the political campaign donation history for every department employee. Tasked with assessing how its ankle monitoring system performed compared with other states, Estes contacted all 49 other probation programs.

Spotlight uncovered patronage on a scale rumors could not have predicted, with ambitious workers rising in the ranks soon before or after donating to unchallenged incumbents’ campaigns, and the department’s State House-approved budget ballooning, even during a budget crisis.

After the initial story, calls began pouring in from other employees who had stayed silent out of fear or complacency. When all was done, there were almost too many allegations to recount. The theft of millions of dollars of probation fines from a poorly supervised office. Veteran employees without political connections passed over. The hiring of multiple members of the same families into the department.

The players in the patronage system faced few permanent legal consequences. But journalism can offer a form of accountability that is distinct from criminal justice. “I don’t know that they ever paid the price that they should have, but the record is still there,” says reporter Marcella Bombardieri, now a senior fellow at the think tank Center for American Progress. “It wasn’t a shocking discovery, but it was so powerful to actually document it.”

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The Spotlight report sent a message, and change followed. The complaints about the department that reporters had been so accustomed to hearing slowed to a trickle. Some probation programs that were mismanaged during the O’Brien years are now considered innovative models for the country.

“Accountability can be achieved in a lot of different ways,” says Scott Allen, now Globe assistant managing editor for projects. To Allen, the report’s lasting impact is captured in the relief many probation employees felt for the first time in years. “They felt like it was Liberation Day,” he says. “They felt like merit suddenly had a chance again, that the idea of fairness had a chance again.”


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Dasia Moore is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail her at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.