Relief over probation verdict, concerns over pace of change

By and Globe correspondent and Globe staff 

Joseph Gagnon once ran the Probation Department’s electronic monitoring program, but he learned the hard way not to challenge the insiders running the agency under Commissioner John J. O’Brien.

A specialist in the field, Gagnon was hired in 2002 to oversee the department’s fledgling program overseeing defendants hooked up to electronic bracelets. But Gagnon lost his job when he clashed with one of O’Brien’s inner circle.


Now a real estate developer, Gagnon was working on a house Thursday, he said, when he heard the verdicts in the probation case. “I broke down and cried,” he said.

Gagnon and others who were victims of corruption in the department led by O’Brien reacted with relief and elation to a jury’s finding Thursday that O’Brien and two of his top aides ran the department like a criminal enterprise. But concerns remain that the pace of change at the Probation Department is too slow.

Probation officer Karen Jackson said she was surprised but glad to hear of the guilty verdicts. In 2005, Jackson was passed over for a promotion to assistant chief probation officer, even though she was the unanimous first choice of a hiring committee. O’Brien instead gave the post to the grandniece of Marie J. Parente, then a representative .

“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Jackson said of the verdict. “It was nice to see a good jury that found them guilty and understood what was really going on.”

Jackson hopes the convictions will help put an end to questions about whether any wrongdoing took place.


“This is not something that was made up,” she said.

But Jackson, who still works in probation, said she is deeply frustrated that change is so long in coming to the department where she says morale has cratered and many experienced officers are retiring or resigning.

“There’s a lack of confidence in the leadership,” Jackson said. “Some of the people involved [in the scandal] got promotions, and we were like, ‘Oh, great.’ That’s where morale falls down.”

Asked why some employees who were alleged to be involved in the corrupt hiring scheme remain employed by the department, Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence said it made the most sense to discipline those employees, and give them the opportunity to comply with the new rules.

“If you hold every single lower- and mid-level employee responsible for behavior they did in a culture that insisted they behave that way, you’ve got ridiculous standards for human behavior,” Spence said. “It’s unreasonable to expect everybody to be a whistleblower.”

Spence, a turnaround specialist who was brought on in 2012 and who is the direct supervisor of current Probation Commissioner Edward Dolan, acknowledged that overhauling the Probation Department is a work in progress.


“The damage that was done in those 10 years [under O’Brien] was deep, really deep,” he said. “That doesn’t get cured in weeks. We’re still cleaning up the mess. The only way back to organizational health is through hard, hard, hard work. It takes a while for that hard work to produce results.”

Spence said a package of trial court changes passed by the Legislature in 2011, along with changes recommended by a panel headed by former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, have led to improvements. Among other changes, the law makes public all letters of recommendation for candidates for probation job. It also keeps those letters from the department’s three-member hiring boards until the boards have selected finalists based on their qualifications alone.

Spence said the scandal has sent a clear message to legislators.

“In my 2½ years here, I have not received a single phone call on a job application from a legislator,” he said. “I’ve gotten absolutely zero pressure on hiring, zero. . . . It’s a very, very different world than the world that was described in the O’Brien trial.”

But there have been setbacks to the reform effort, Spence admitted. A test for new hires mandated by the 2011 law was only implemented in June. As a result of that delay, the department went through a hiring freeze and remains badly understaffed.

Spence said he sympathizes with frustrated employees, but is hoping to return to the department to a strict focus on its mission.

“There’s no sudden, ‘Oh, my God, we’re at the promised land’ moment,” Spence said. “But I have had many conversations with long-term veterans of the department who say it’s hard, it’s tough, but they’re relieved to be back doing the work.”

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