David L Ryan
One had his phone pressed to his ear. Another ran up a staircase, saying he had to go a meeting. A third just smiled and waved as he raced into a colleague’s office.
After a federal jury found Thursday that officials in the state Probation Department had hired politically connected candidates to curry favor with legislators, it was hard to find anyone on Beacon Hill who was willing to speak out. Outside the Senate chamber, senators insisted they had to be somewhere else, had not read the verdict, or were busy with other business.
The silence illustrated the pall the trial has cast over the State House — which has long operated in a culture of patronage and loyalty — and reignited the central question of how much will change in the way business is done on Beacon Hill.
Those who did release statements, most notably, Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray, rejected any suggestion that they were involved in placing unqualified candidates in probation jobs and insisted they were unaware of any crimes.
DeLeo — who was not charged, but was named a coconspirator by federal prosecutors — welcomed the verdict, saying it “confirmed that neither I nor any member of the Legislature had engaged in any inappropriate conduct.”
Even though no lawmakers have been charged, the probation scandal caused deep anxiety on Beacon Hill. Legislators have seen three consecutive speakers ensnared in legal troubles: Charles F. Flaherty pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 1996; Thomas M. Finneran pleaded guilty in 2007 to obstruction of justice for giving false testimony in a redistricting trial; and Salvatore F. DiMasi is serving eight years in federal prison after being convicted in 2011 on corruption charges.
Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat, called the probation verdict sad, and argued the tradition of patronage has begun to change in recent years.
Still, she said, helping constituents find work is part of her job. When she makes a recommendation, she said, she only asks that her constituents be granted an interview.
“It’s not guaranteeing jobs,” said Dorcena Forry, who was among the few lawmakers willing to speak to reporters about the verdict. “It’s always been part of our work in terms of the constituents we represent.”
DeLeo, in his statement, said that although former probation commissioner John J. O’Brien and two deputies were found guilty of many charges, including racketeering and mail fraud, the jury rejected the charge of bribery.
“In other words, after hearing all the evidence the jury correctly concluded that neither I nor any other member of the Legislature engaged in any quid pro quo or had any knowledge of the defendant’s intent,” he said.
As legislators prepare to leave the State House for the year when the formal legislative sessions end next week, DeLeo said he would continue to focus on his priorities, including bills aimed at reducing gun violence and domestic abuse.
Governor Deval Patrick expressed confidence that the legislative favor-trading depicted in the trial has already been addressed by a reorganization of the Probation Department approved in 2011 after the scandal broke.
“The practices at issue were wrong and undermine public confidence in government,” he said in a statement. “Fortunately, when these issues first came to light, we worked with the Legislature to reform hiring practices at probation. I want the public to know that the practices on trial are not the practices in place today.”
But Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog group, said the verdict should prompt further action by lawmakers to root out patronage.
“The systemic issues that allowed the problems to escalate over a period of years must be promptly addressed in the next legislative session,” she said. “To that end, we plan to work with interested lawmakers, ethics experts, and court reformers over the next six months to propose workable solutions to the issues of political patronage and court reform.”
Murray, who was among the legislators said by witnesses to be recommending candidates for probation jobs, went on the defensive after the verdict, saying the Senate president’s office regularly receives hundreds of requests from constituents seeking housing, health care, and other help.
“As previously stated, I was unaware of any possible scheme or improper hiring practices at probation and, when I did learn what was going on, led a thorough overhaul of hiring at the department” designed to ensure that only qualified candidates are hired, Murray said.
Stopping briefly in a State House hallway, she declined to answer questions from reporters.
“I put out a statement,” Murray said. “I’ll stand by the statement. I’m not going to make any further comment.”
House Republican leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. called the case “further testament to the utter failure and negative consequences one-party government represents to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth.”
“The jury’s verdict should serve as a loud and clear message that the way the Democratic-led state government operates desperately needs to change,” he said.
Outside the Senate chamber, several Democratic lawmakers were not inclined to speak to waiting reporters.
“No comment,” said Representative Michael J. Moran, a Brighton Democrat and a top DeLeo deputy, rushing by.
“I’ve been in session all day,” said Senator Thomas McGee of Lynn, who is also chairman of the state Democratic Party. And then, he, too, was gone, hurrying down a Senate hallway.
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