Almost three years after the Massachusetts Probation Department patronage scandal swept longtime Commissioner John J. O’Brien and most of his deputies out of their jobs, the agency is being run by people who bucked his unfair hiring system.
Ellen J. Slaney, now the acting commissioner, spent years in internal exile after she opposed her former boss’s recommendation to hire an admitted felon whose father was a state senator. Her top aide, Edward Dalton, still has the voicemail threatening him with the loss of his job if he didn’t go along with O’Brien’s hiring wishes.
But change does not come easily or quickly, and these new leaders are still trying to erase the legacy of cronyism, secrecy, and ineptitude from 12 years under O’Brien, who is facing opening arguments Thursday in the first of two criminal trials.
The new probation leaders have received praise for dismantling patronage programs, retraining officers, and — most significantly — overhauling the hiring process to give people without connections a chance, making the workforce more diverse in the process. None of the 29 chief probation officers hired in the last two years had a politician’s endorsement on file, a striking contrast to O’Brien’s tenure.
“I hope others see that we’re back on track and moving forward,” said Slaney, who in January became the first woman commissioner in probation’s 141-year history. “Honestly, the scandal was a very painful experience for the whole service. These are well-educated, accomplished people who have been embarrassed.”
Yet, some employees are discouraged by the pace of change as they wait for Chief Justice for Administration Robert Mulligan to name a permanent commissioner to succeed Slaney later this spring. The department is still haunted by problems that festered under O’Brien:
■ Probation is still loaded with employees who either ran the old patronage system or benefited from it, including Kathleen Petrolati, whose husband, state Representative Tom Petrolati, was nicknamed “the king of patronage” for his ability to get probation jobs for backers. Kathleen Petrolati is one of more than a dozen current employees identified by federal prosecutors as people who were hired even though they were “not the most qualified candidate.” Numerous supervisors who helped pick these job candidates are still on the payroll, too.
■ Though the hiring process is more open than under O’Brien, employees can point to what they say are examples of politically connected candidates still getting the job ahead of seemingly more qualified candidates. For instance, Margaret Oglesby, a decorated Army veteran who commanded a unit of 154 military police in Afghanistan, was passed over twice for promotions last year, records show, once in favor of a sheriff’s son and the second time for a political ally of Petrolati who had far less probation experience.
“People with connections are still getting the jobs over the people who don’t have connections,” said one employee who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. Several colleagues echoed that sentiment in interviews with the Globe.
Part of the disappointment may reflect the soaring expectations when Chief Justice for Administration Robert A. Mulligan suspended O’Brien in May 2010 after a Globe Spotlight report detailed the way O’Brien catered to legislators’ wishes. Mulligan replaced O’Brien with Ronald Corbett, the very man who lost out to O’Brien for the commissioner’s job in 1997.
Corbett had served as the agency’s second in command in the 1990s when Massachusetts probation had a national reputation for innovation. Commonwealth Magazine referred to the sky-high hopes around the new leader as “the cult of Corbett.”
But Leonard W. Engel, a longtime probation observer at Community Resources for Justice in Boston, said there was no way that Corbett in his two years as acting commissioner could fix all the problems, any more than Slaney can over the next few months until her successor is named.
“It’s been a devastating period for this agency, and it’s not going to be something that turns around overnight no matter who the leader is,” said Engel, an attorney who works to reform probation departments around the country. “The next person who takes over this agency is going to have a huge amount of work to do.”
Corbett inherited a mess when he agreed to return to the Probation Department after 12 years away.
Record-keeping had become so haphazard and politicized that the agency didn’t even know how many people on probation they were supervising — O’Brien said the number was more than 250,000, but Corbett determined it was actually 82,000.
As a result, from the moment he walked in the door at probation headquarters, Corbett turned his attention to improving the tarnished agency’s day-to-day performance, leaving the investigation of O’Brien’s alleged misdeeds to the independent counsel, Paul F. Ware.
“I know it’s difficult and it’s stressful,” Corbett told his new employees. “But the only good antidote that I could think of was to try to distract ourselves by throwing ourselves into the work.”
Though Corbett declined to publicly criticize O’Brien, he set about systematically changing the way O’Brien ran the agency.
Corbett also dismantled the over-staffed electronic monitoring system, closing two of the three centers O’Brien had created and reducing the monitoring staff from 60 to 44 while increasing the number of people being monitored by 50 percent.
Corbett also ended probation’s self-imposed isolation, rejoining a national probation organization and reconnecting with other Massachusetts correction and law enforcement agencies that had complained for years that O’Brien ignored them.
“What Ron has brought to the table these last two years has been an enlightened, refreshing, open approach to problem-solving in a way that brings people together,” said Stephen Valle, president of AdCare Criminal Justice Services, who is helping probation overhaul a program called community corrections.
And Corbett helped the department do a better job of identifying the people on probation who are most likely to commit more crimes. He oversaw development of a detailed questionnaire for probationers that allows officers to identify factors that can make probationers more dangerous, ranging from lack of a support system to a history of mental illness.
“To outsiders, this sounds like bureaucratic gobbledygook,” Corbett admitted. “But case classification is the core of probation work. It is the medical equivalent of a diagnosis and treatment plan.”
Despite all the changes, Corbett, who retired in January, said he never felt a backlash.
“I can honestly say that I’m not aware of any resistance on any front at any point,” Corbett said. “I never ever had a Sunday where I wasn’t looking forward to going to work on Monday.”
Yet much remains to be done, including convincing employees that politics is not creeping back into the process thanks to a law change that gave the final hiring decision to first justices in each courthouse instead of the commissioner. Among the chiefs appointed in 2012 were the son of Hampden County sheriff Michael Ashe as well as Sean McBride, a political ally of Representative Petrolati.
But Corbett said he’s satisfied that the choices were made based on ability, not connections.
“There might have been a couple of cases where I would have taken the second candidate, but we’re talking about splitting hairs here,” said Corbett, who had the power to veto choices if he objected. “There was nobody who was appointed who I didn’t think was amply qualified.
By the time Mulligan names a permanent commissioner later this spring, the acting leaders of probation expect to have replaced nearly half of the chief probation officers in courthouses statewide.
But Slaney has already decided to leave vacant six deputy commissioners’ positions that were once filled with O’Brien loyalists. “It’s important for the new commissioner to develop his or her own team,” she said, even though that means she now runs the agency with a single deputy.
Asked who is doing all the work, Slaney replied, “A lot of it is on my desk.”
Scott Allen can be reached at