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Politicians Use Non-Profits and Government Jobs as Money Funnels to Hire Relatives

May 25, 2010

An agency where patronage is job one

The state Probation Department once set the standard for the nation in rehabilitating criminals. But nine years ago the Legislature freed it from meaningful oversight, and the results were predictable: budgets soared, and the welcome mat was out for hundreds of job seekers with political juice.


This story was reported by The Globe Spotlight Team, reporters Scott Allen, Marcella Bombardieri, Andrea Estes, and editor Thomas Farragher. It was written by Allen.

By any measure, Deirdre I. Kennedy was an outstanding candidate for chief probation officer at West Roxbury District Court. A Wellesley College graduate with two master’s degrees, Kennedy was a streetwise veteran of the Dorchester courthouse who spoke fluent Spanish. She was also a proven leader who had run an antidomestic violence program that won nearly $8 million in federal grants.

But, in the closed world of the Massachusetts Probation Department, dazzling credentials scarcely matter. Probation Commissioner John J. “Jack’’ O’Brien chose the 73-year-old father of a state legislator instead, doing a favor for then-House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, one of O’Brien’s key political mentors, who said he sought the promotion for James J. Rush as a “capstone’’ to the man’s 41-year probation career.

The top judge in West Roxbury warned O’Brien that Rush was not up to the task, and his two-year tenure turned out to be a fiasco. Rush clashed with five female employees who alleged that he threw tantrums, tossed papers at them, and slammed the door in one woman’s face. He abruptly retired in September 2006, leaving behind a sex and race discrimination lawsuit filed by two of the women, but taking home a boost in his pension thanks to his late-career promotion.

Rush’s quick exit gave O’Brien a second chance to take the advice of Judge Kathleen E. Coffey, who recommended Kennedy for the job. Instead, O’Brien chose another politically connected candidate: a veteran probation officer who has donated $2,100 to Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, an O’Brien ally who employs O’Brien’s wife and one of his daughters.

After 12 years in charge, Jack O’Brien has transformed the Probation Department from a national pioneer of better ways to rehabilitate criminals into an organization that functions more like a private employment agency for the well connected, the Spotlight Team has found.

O’Brien’s agency now employs at least 250 friends, relatives, and financial backers of politicians and top court officials, the Spotlight review found, including children of US Representative William D. Delahunt, former mayor Raymond L. Flynn of Boston, and former Senate president William M. Bulger. The agency has also hired House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s godson, who, at 28, is now the youngest chief probation officer in Massachusetts.

O’Brien has taken care of friends, too, finding jobs for the children of his Boston College football teammate, for a friend who ran a fur shop, for a former plasterer friendly with Cahill, and promoting two probation officers who moonlight as bartenders at a Northampton pizza joint frequented by one of his top deputies. Along the way, O’Brien’s family has also benefited.

O’Brien’s agency hired his daughter Genevieve, despite a warning that he might be violating the court system’s rules against nepotism. That gave O’Brien’s immediate family two jobs at the Probation Department, including his own, and two more under Cahill with a combined annual income of $260,000.

No legislator has reaped greater benefit from the pattern of hiring than state Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, the third-ranking House member who is regarded by many members of the Western Massachusetts legislative delegation as the “king of patronage’’ in courthouses west of Worcester. Under O’Brien, the Probation Department has provided jobs for Petrolati’s wife, a former staffer, the husband of his legislative aide, and literally dozens of Springfield-area residents who have donated money to Petrolati.

Since 2002, Petrolati has collected twice as much in campaign contributions from probation employees as any other legislator, according to campaign finance records. And O’Brien’s former deputy commissioner, William H. Burke III, planned to help Petrolati raise even more last week as master of ceremonies at his annual fund-raiser.

“Tommy can get whatever he wants as long as Tommy delivers on the budget,’’ said a Petrolati confidant who said Petrolati gets first crack at finding candidates for probation jobs throughout Western Massachusetts.

Petrolati for weeks declined requests for an interview, and went so far at one point as to evade a reporter who visited him in Ludlow. Last week, in an e-mail response to Globe questions, he denied that he has undue influence over the Probation Department, saying that he recommends only people he believes are qualified.

“All that I expect . . . is that they will do a good job,’’ wrote Petrolati. He also pointed out that he doesn’t vote on the department’s budget because his wife works for the agency.

But it’s clear that the Probation Department’s friends in the Legislature have delivered: The department’s budget grew more than 160 percent from 1998 to 2008, a period in which other public safety agencies’ spending increased by 20 percent or less, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Boston Foundation. The largesse has enabled the department to pay 79 managers at least $100,000 annually and to give pay increases in 2010 to 43 of its 100 best-paid employees amid a budget crisis.

O’Brien, who agreed to only one half-hour telephone interview with the Spotlight Team, denies that his budget has soared compared with others. He argues that changes in the court budget process in 2004 make comparisons to earlier years impossible. Since 2004, however, O’Brien’s budget has grown more than twice as fast as other court offices’.

He also says managers’ pay has been frozen since 2004. But he did not note that the freeze doesn’t apply to increases based on seniority or promotions. In fact, most managers’ pay has increased since 2004, including O’Brien’s own salary, which rose from $116,241 to $130,305.

While O’Brien’s reign has been rewarding for top legislators and his inner circle, the pervasive intrusion of politics and favoritism has, according to interviews with a broad array of Probation Department personnel, badly damaged the morale of an agency with a big job to do: supervising tens of thousands of those convicted of drunken driving, sex offenses, and other crimes who are serving their sentences in the community. A six-month investigation by the Spotlight Team also found that:

The department is beset by a “pay to play’’ mentality in which ambitious employees, whether qualified or not, make campaign contributions to key politicians in hopes of advancing their careers. “You’ve got to have political juice,’’ complained one probation officer who was passed over for promotion in favor of a less experienced but politically connected candidate.

Since the Legislature, at Finneran’s urging, transferred power over hiring from judges to O’Brien in 2001, Probation Department employees’ donations to legislative campaigns have more than doubled, a Spotlight Team analysis shows, rising from $23,413 in 2002 to more than $55,000 in 2008. Most of the money goes to just 10 powerful legislators, including DeLeo, Petrolati, and two others who have immediate family members working for the department.

■ Promising candidates who don’t have political connections are routinely passed over to make way for the politically wired. O’Brien, for example, didn’t promote veteran probation officer Karen Jackson to assistant chief probation officer in 2005, even though she was the unanimous first choice of a hiring committee at Milford District Court that included the local judge and Jackson’s boss, a chief probation officer. Instead, O’Brien hired the grandniece of then-State Representative Marie J. Parente.

Jackson said that when she called Parente, the lawmaker said she felt guilty to have lobbied for her relative, who initially was ranked in the middle of the pack of candidates. “The fix was in,’’ said Jackson. “If you don’t know anyone, you’re not going anywhere.’’

Parente said she has repeatedly helped Jackson throughout her career in the department. The former lawmaker said she does not recall whether she lobbied for her relative’s promotion. “I was always careful about the conflict-of-interest law,’’ Parente said. “I truly can’t remember what I did for her.’’

■ Lax oversight of the collection of fines and court costs paid by probationers has left the department, which handles more than $70 million a year in cash, vulnerable to theft. The Spotlight Team has learned that the state’s trial court, after an embezzlement scandal in the Lawrence probation office, has identified five other probation offices that have multiple deficiencies in the way they handle and account for funds. A cashier at a sixth office, in Stoughton, resigned in August after allegedly stealing thousands in court-ordered payments from offenders.

The alleged theft of $2 million from the probation office in Lawrence District Court went on for three years despite two formal warnings from outside auditors that the clerk, Marie Morey, had almost no supervision, appeared to use irregular bookkeeping methods and couldn’t explain some missing funds. Ultimately, the Administrative Office of the Trial Court — not the Probation Department — discovered the scope of the alleged crime. Morey has pleaded not guilty.

Yet the regional supervisor who oversaw the Lawrence District Court probation office, Jeffrey L. Akers, is still on the job and says he has little knowledge of the scandal. O’Brien said in a statement that he had no plans to discipline Akers because it’s up to court administrators to oversee “the financial integrity of the court.’’

Akers’s written job description, however, calls for him to provide “technical assistance’’ to Lawrence and other probation offices in “fiscal matters and personnel issues.’’ Moreover, State Auditor A. Joseph DeNucci’s scathing 2007 report finding discrepancies in Morey’s bookkeeping was addressed to probation officials, who formally promised to fix the problems.

Chief Justice Robert A. Mulligan, chief administrator of Massachusetts’ trial courts, said he is frustrated by the apparent lack of accountability by probation. “There was absolutely no oversight,’’ he said.

■ In three cases, politically connected employees with histories of alleged misconduct or sloppy work avoided serious career fallout. For example, Worcester police fruitlessly complained to O’Brien in 2008 that associate probation officer Ashley Losapio, the stepdaughter of a judge, had compromised an investigation by leaking information to criminals.

Police say Losapio admitted hanging around with “bad guys,’’ and had the telephone numbers of drug and gun suspects programmed into her cellphone. While she told police she never gave the suspects information about criminal matters, she acknowledged that she would tell them whom she saw in court.

The Worcester district attorney’s office said it found no probable cause to prosecute Losapio, but then-Detective Captain Edward J. McGinn Jr. wrote to O’Brien that “she is not a suitable person to serve this community as a probation officer.’’ McGinn said he’s never heard back from O’Brien. Since then, Losapio has been transferred. She continues to work for probation, and her pay has increased by nearly $3,000 a year.

McGinn, now Worcester’s deputy police chief, said his investigators believe Losapio continues to associate with known criminals.

“How on Monday through Friday from 8 to 4 can you sit down and try to guide a probationer, try to straighten their lives out . . . and then go run with them at night?’’ McGinn said in a recent interview.

Losapio did not respond to multiple messages left at her home and office. O’Brien’s office said the matter was “fully investigated, resulting in the appropriate action.

There are another 5 pages to this story at the Boston Globe

One Comment
  1. concerned citizen permalink

    How Can someone who is supposed to be trustworthy when they tell convicted criminals priviliged information. It definitely does not deserve a pay raise. I’ve seen her out, getting into fist fights, and hanging out with known criminals. Its sad what my taxes go to. Corrupt people who get transferered and given more money. Awesome. Ever since school I’ve known her. She got kicked out for fighting. But her dad will always Get her out of everything. Abuse of power at its fullest.

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