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Fired court official slides into new job at City Hall

Said Boston City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy of hiring former Barnstable District Court clerk magistrate Robert E. Powers: “Who would the Globe have me hire? My enemies? I’m hiring my friends.”
Said Boston City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy of hiring former Barnstable District Court clerk magistrate Robert E. Powers: “Who would the Globe have me hire? My enemies? I’m hiring my friends.”Globe Staff/File 2013

Robert E. Powers was fired in a most public way: The state’s highest court ruled that “Powers fundamentally failed to do his job” when it took the rare step of removing him as clerk magistrate in Barnstable District Court.

Powers did more than routinely arrive two hours late. According to court records, Powers was “demeaning,” “bigoted,” “combative,” and “abusive.” In one instance, Powers became “red in the face” and called a man “a coward for using his wife’s death from cancer” as an excuse when the man said he had trouble controlling his son.

But now, two years later, Powers has found a new employer: Councilor Stephen J. Murphy .

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In March, Murphy hired Powers to a $75,000-a-year position as an aide in his City Council office. The new job has the potential to boost his pension, which could be significant for a longtime government employee whose salary was once $110,000.

Powers lives four doors down from Murphy in Hyde Park, and the two men attended Boston Latin School together. In an interview, Murphy acknowledged that Powers had been fired by the Supreme Judicial Court. Murphy rejected the suggestion that Powers’s behavior as clerk magistrate made him unfit to interact with constituents.

“The Bobby Powers I know has an excellent reputation,” Murphy said. “He’s been working here since mid-March to glowing reviews. He’s punctual. He’s polite. He’s competent.”

Powers did not respond to messages seeking comment. Murphy said that his aides are not allowed to speak to the press, and he defended his friend.

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” Murphy said, “including Robert Powers.”

The Globe reported last month that Murphy hired Patrick Harrington, another friend from Hyde Park.

After 37 years at City Hall, Harrington retired in 2014 and received a $19,000 payout for unused vacation and other time, according to payroll records.

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Harrington now receives two checks from the city: He has an annual pension of just of over $72,000 a year and is paid nearly $34 an hour to work 10 hours a week in Murphy’s office.

The arrangement is legal, but Harrington is limited in how much he can make while collecting a city pension.

Murphy said Harrington and Powers were “both a bargain for taxpayers” because of their significant government experience.

“Who would the Globe have me hire? My enemies?” Murphy said when asked what conclusions could be drawn by both men being on his payroll. “I’m hiring my friends.”

The 13 councilors hire their own staff.

The council voted earlier this year to increase the annual staff allocation for each office to $216,250, with the City Council president receiving $262,500.

The amount does not include health benefits paid by the city.

Council staffers are paid with tax dollars, not campaign donations.

Councilors have autonomy to set salaries and divide their staffing budgets as they see fit.

Murphy has received at least two dozen donations, totaling $2,265, from Harrington and other members of his household, according to records with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

The most recent check for $100 came shortly after Harrington joined the payroll.

Powers has made at least 13 political donations, totaling $2,650, since 2009 to Murphy’s campaign, records show.

The donations included a $500 check Powers wrote a month after he was hired.

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“He’s a friend,” Murphy said. “My friends donate to me. They like me.”

The 57-year-old councilor is running this fall for his 10th full term on the council.

On Monday, Murphy said that Powers had worked for 35 years in district attorneys’ offices in Suffolk and Bristol counties, and “never had a complaint filed against him.”

The two district attorneys’ offices were unable Monday to confirm Murphy’s assertion because Powers’s personnel files were not easily accessible.

After a career as a prosecutor, Powers was nominated in December 2006 by Governor Mitt Romney to become the Barnstable District Court clerk magistrate, a lifetime job with no mandatory retirement date.

According to court documents, trouble started immediately.

Powers “typically arrived one to two hours late” and missed the busiest part of the day in the clerk’s office, according to the documents.

In his first six months on the job, Powers was overheard by a judge “screaming and belittling” a female litigant.

During a May 2008 small claims hearing, a plaintiff described Powers as “rude, demeaning, bigoted, and obnoxious to the defendants,” and he told the defendants if they were going to live in the United States, they had “better learn to speak English.”

Court documents said that “Mr. Powers’ unpredictable, disrespectful, and sometimes aggressive conduct as clerk magistrate . . . has frightened, embarrassed, and depleted the morale of those working in and doing business with the Barnstable District Court.”

One unnamed court staffer told investigators: “We are better off when he is not here. His demeanor is a nightmare.”

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Powers’s ouster in 2013 marked the first time in 14 years that a sitting clerk magistrate or register in Massachusetts had been forced from office.

Murphy said he had “not really” read the ruling about Powers’s behavior, but he took aim at the author of the unanimous decision, Ralph D. Gants, who has since been appointed chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

“I wasn’t down there” in Barnstable District Court, Murphy said.

“I couldn’t judge it for myself and neither was Ralph Gants, to be honest with you.”

In his ruling, Gants wrote that Powers’s behavior as clerk magistrate was so egregious that “public good requires his removal.”


John R. Ellement and Jim O’Sullivan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.