editorial

John O’Brien deserves indictment, but real villain is system

The name atop last week’s blockbuster federal indictment may be that of John J. O’Brien, the former Massachusetts probation chief who is accused of running a corrupt hiring system. But there’s a bigger villain identified by the painstaking 56-page document: the Commonwealth’s friends-and-favors political culture. O’Brien’s fate is now in the hands of the court. But it’s for voters to grapple with the larger problems his case has exposed.

The indictment argues, in laborious detail, that O’Brien gave jobs to unqualified but politically connected applicants. According to federal prosecutors, O’Brien hired candidates recommended by Senate President Therese Murray at least three times, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo at least 10 times. Each hire, prosecutors allege, amounted to a bribe: O’Brien gave the lawmakers’ picks a job, and in return he got budget increases and bureaucratic clout.

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The facts seem damning. But when O’Brien faced related corruption charges in a state trial, he was acquitted. Jurors seemed uneasy holding O’Brien personally accountable for a crony-hiring system that’s much bigger than any one official. Defense lawyers will no doubt offer the same reasoning in his federal trial; a lawyer for one of the other probation officials charged in the indictment said federal prosecutors were treating traditional political horse-trading as a crime. “It’s patronage hiring, and they’re calling it a different name,” he said.

That argument might fly with a jury, but it’s no principled defense of O’Brien’s actions. Traditional or not, the kind of patronage hiring in which the former commissioner specialized has a deeply destructive impact that lawmakers need to acknowledge.

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First, it undermines trust in government when connections are the surest way to get a public job. But it also results in a less effective government. Many patronage hires no doubt try their hardest. But when officials like O’Brien pass over the most qualified candidates time and again in favor of lawmakers’ friends or relatives, the overall quality of the services provided is bound to suffer. The Massachusetts Probation Department went from being one of nation’s most respected to a mess.

Unfortunately, lawmakers like DeLeo and Murray still seem to see nothing wrong with foisting candidates on agencies. And Governor Deval Patrick, while not involved in the probation scandal, has been too blase about some other patronage hiring incidents during his tenure. That attitude is especially tough to accept from Democrats, who are more apt to favor government solutions. Politicians who believe the work government does is important and necessary should be the first to insist that the best candidates fill public jobs.

It will be up to a jury to decide whether O’Brien is held responsible for his role in packing his department with political hires. But the verdict on the system should already be clear. Now it’s up to voters to insist that patronage hiring in state government has to end.

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