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A shameful act of patronage

Sheila Burgess, the top safety officer since 2007, is on medical leave recovering from an Aug. 24 one-car accident in Milton in which she drove off the road and suffered a head injury.Handout/handout

It’s disturbing enough when powerful politicians use their influence to find sinecures in state government for unqualified political supporters. But steering such patronage hires into public safety jobs shows an utter lack of regard not only for taxpayers’ wallets but their physical safety as well.

On Monday, the Patrick administration announced the removal of Sheila Burgess from her $87,000-a-year position as state highway safety director following a Globe report on her abysmal driving record, which includes seven accidents, four speeding violations, and two failures to stop. Burgess is currently on medical leave after an August one-car accident in Milton.

Yet even if she had a spotless driving record before her appointment, Burgess was not qualified for the job. Her professional background shows no experience in public safety, transportation, or government administration. But Burgess, a former aide to the late Representative Joseph Moakley, was rich in experience when it came to raising funds through her consulting firm. Her client list includes Democratic politicians, including Representative James McGovern, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, and Senator John Kerry. In 2007, McGovern recommended Burgess for a position somewhere in state government.


Burgess's appointment should be seen through the dirty lens of the "friends and favors'' culture that permeates Beacon Hill. Had the search for a highway safety director centered on talent and experience, it's impossible to think she would have received an interview, never mind landed the job. It's the same insidious system that placed Matthew McLaughlin — whose license was suspended for failing to take a breathalyzer test — into a $60,000-a-year job on a state board that hears appeals from drunk drivers. Murray, who is widely perceived as a major conduit for patronage jobs, recommended McLaughlin. McGovern sponsored Burgess. And despite his expressions of anger, the ultimate responsibility for the patronage system rests with Patrick. All three politicians should be embarrassed.

Massachusetts has a miserable record for seatbelt use and ranks only in the middle of the pack on general ratings for traffic safety. One reason is that the police here cannot pull over drivers solely for failing to buckle up. A credible and knowledgable highway safety director might have guided stricter enforcement measures through the Legislature. Burgess, it turns out, wasn't much of a role model for the cause. Her driving transgressions include a violation for driving without a seatbelt.


Incredibly, the Patrick administration is trying to find another job for Burgess in the state's public safety hierarchy. This is the same administration that defends its patronage system by insisting that qualifications come before connections. The Burgess hiring gives lie to that claim; keeping her on the payroll in another capacity would be a further insult to taxpayers.