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Scandal-plagued parks department challenges Baker

Governor Charlie Baker.
Governor Charlie Baker. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

A few months after Governor Deval Patrick took office in 2007, a group of dispirited Republicans gathered at a Hingham country club to hear from one of their party’s few remaining bright lights.

“Reform agendas are what sell in Massachusetts,” said Charlie Baker, then a health insurance executive but still clearly interested in Beacon Hill politics. “Most people think change, particularly when it comes to the status quo in government, is a good thing.”

Nearly a decade later, Baker is now governor and has come face to face with just how difficult change can be. A series of small-bore scandals within the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs — involving misused emergency sirens and political intimidation — have tested Baker’s skill as a fix-it specialist.

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The agency has a long history of political scandal, dating back to Governor William Weld’s tenure in the 1990s. Now it is Baker’s turn, and he is promising more changes to come at the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which falls under the agency.

This week, Baker stood in his office suite and talked with reporters about an administration probe into complaints of political intimidation at his energy and environmental office, resulting in the resignation of one top agency official and the firing of another. The governor said he was “astonished” by the behavior, which administration officials said involved one official pressuring another to persuade her fiancé not to run for office against a GOP state senator.

That probe came on the heels of the resignation last week of the Department of Conservation and Recreation deputy commissioner, who was forced out after inappropriately using the siren and flashing lights on his state-issued vehicle to escape a Boston traffic jam, officials said. DCR, funded at $87 million for the current fiscal year, falls under the energy and environment secretariat.

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That agency is led by Secretary Matthew Beaton, a former Shrewsbury state representative who took the House seat once held by Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. Baker has repeatedly underscored his confidence in Beaton.

On Wednesday, Baker said DCR had drawn record crowds to parks, pools, and playgrounds over the summer and praised “hundreds of solid people who work there.”

“I don’t want to paint a brush that says everybody that works at DCR doesn’t know what they are doing because a lot of the people who are there do. I will say this: Anybody who engages in any of the kinds of activity that have been associated either with this investigation or some stuff that has been reported with respect to the misuse of state property and all the rest, we will deal with that, and we will deal with that aggressively,” Baker said.

The parks department has won a reputation as a patronage magnet, over several administrations, taking the place of other renowned depositories for governors to stash their political allies. (The Turnpike Authority was swallowed by the Executive Office of Transportation, and Massport was chastened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.)

“If you think about it from a political standpoint, if you need a place to put people, where do you put them?” said one former senior EEA official. “You don’t have the Turnpike anymore.”

The string of damaging revelations is far from the first to befall DCR, which in a previous life was known as the Metropolitan District Commission until Governor Mitt Romney abolished it early in his term as part of an effort to reform state government. But the structural reform did not prevent scandal. In 2005, two senior DCR officials were forced out after a truck hit four high-school students on a VFW Parkway sidewalk where the agency had failed to clear snow.

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Patrick, who took pride in his administration’s efforts to improve state parks, also experienced missteps at the agency. Three DCR workers resigned in 2011 after a woman drowned in a state-owned Fall River pool and her body was not found for two days.

Even before Patrick and Romney, the agency had been targeted by those who wanted to reform state government. Weld, now the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee, targeted it in 1995 for a merger with the Department of Environmental Management. The agency had been revealed to have a $100,000 “Stress House” in Milton for its employees, reportedly including programs for recovering sex addicts.

But that plan failed, with Weld blaming intransigent lawmakers for resisting his good-government efforts. Romney later fired the longtime GOP operative who had led the agency under Weld and ripped the MDC’s “pervasive reputation of cronyism and malfeasance.”

The most recent blend of politics and bureaucracy was apparent in July, when the fired deputy commissioner, longtime Republican operative Matthew Sisk, and DCR Commissioner Leo Roy used public resources to host a July 3 party at the Beacon Hill condominium of Republican National Committee member Ron Kaufman. Attendees were chauffeured in taxpayer-funded golf carts to a VIP area of the Hatch Shell’s Fourth of July event. The party’s guest list reportedly included top Baker aides including Beaton, budget chief Kristen Lepore, Baker senior adviser Tim Buckley, and state GOP chairwoman Kirsten Hughes. The administration has not made public a list of which invitees actually attended the party; Lepore’s staff says she was not there.

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Both Roy and Sisk were ordered to take a week of unpaid leave. The agency’s director of fleet operations later resigned.

Two politically connected cousins, Jared and Michael Valanzola, exited the agency this week.

Whether Baker, who held two top Cabinet roles during the Weld and Cellucci administrations, will succeed where his predecessors have failed remains unclear.

During Baker’s term, the Democrat-run Legislature has been largely compliant with his agenda. Legislative leaders infuriated their traditional allies in organized labor by granting Baker increased authority to privatize services at the MBTA. And no prominent Democrats have emerged to challenge Baker when he is expected to seek a second term in 2018.

Baker has long signaled that he would not be content with government clean-up that fell short of his own standards. Talking to the party activists at the Black Rock Country Club more than nine years ago, Baker spoke in disapproval of the Patrick administration’s efforts to bring reform to state government. “They’re only going to do 25 percent of the loaf, and claim that that’s reform,” Baker said then.

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Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.