Cindy Creem

Reforms likely to pass the Senate but not Robert DeLeo’s House of Representatives.

Following Sunday’s Globe exposé of patronage hires at the Probation Department, and yesterday’s move by the Supreme Judicial Court to suspend Probation Commissioner O’Brien, the Senate today proposed a budget amendment to reform some the Probation Department’s most egregious  structural problems, with a proposal that reduces some of the Legislature’s influence in Probation Department hiring.

There have been many articles written on the patronage problem in recent years. It’s a common theme for Howie Carr, and there have been investigative articles all year.

The patronage jobs problem has existed in Massachusetts for so long, and become so ingrained that most on Beacon Hill had forgotten it was not only immoral, but illegal. From the Legislature, to the Attorney General, to even the courts themselves – no action has been taken – because it’s the way business has been done on Beacon Hill for decades.

The Globe‘s article was large enough and detailed enough, and it came at the right time – the start of an election year. It gave the courts the political cover they needed to make their move – and they went right for the jugular. Now that the public’s eye is on the issue, gubernatorial candidates Patrick and Baker have been trying to out-do each other in calls for investigations and reform.

According to the Globe, the Senate today announced a plan to reform the Probation Department:

The plan, announced at a press conference today, would limit the probation commissioner to a five-year term, require the chief justice for administration and management to approve any hiring or firing in the Probation Department, and give the judge power over 5 percent of the department’s budget.

The plan would also appoint a task force to recommend whether the Probation Department should ultimately be controlled by the judiciary or by the executive branch, a change favored by Governor Deval Patrick.

The amendment is expected to be approved Wednesday. These are sensible reforms and the Senate and especially Sen. Cynthia Creem, Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committe should be commended for them.

But let’s not let them off the hook so easily.

Most of our incumbent senators have been in office for a decade or more. The very same legislators sitting today voted to give the Probation Department – and many other state agencies – the powers which are now being abused. They voted to strip judges of the ability to approve hires at probation and the ability to control their budgets – two of the provision the Senate now proposes to repeal only after the issue came to public attention.

Earlier this year Governor Patrick attempted to reform the Probation Department and was met with silence. When his proposal to change the oversight of the Probation Department to the Executive Branch was heard by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary – Probation Commissioner O’Brien did not even bother to show up, and the members of the committee did not ask a single question at the hearing – including Sen. Creem who is suddenly out front on the probation reform issue.

Election years make a difference. Senator Creem is facing a serious challenger, Charles Rudnick, this Fall.

The Supreme Judicial Court has appointed its own independent investigator to start poking around the Probation Department. You can be sure they will find more than what the Globe was able to.  This tarball is likely to keep growing all Summer, and Creem needs to get away from it as fast as possible.

Dan Winslow

The reforms don’t go nearly far enough.

Dan Winslow, a former Presiding Justice of Wrentham District Court, and a candidate for Representative in the 9th Norfolk district, has proposed a much better and more comprehensive set of reforms.

We’ve posted them in more detail, but briefly they are:

  • Commissioner of Probation should serve a fixed term
  • The Chief Justice should be able to replace the Commissioner
  • The courts should once again be able to control how money is allocated between the various courthouses and departments
  • Courts should start accepting fees in checks and credit cards to curt rampant embezzlement
  • Probation department staffing levels should be indexed to caseload
  • Hiring should be done using an open internet process similar to the federal governments site, where  the public can see the job requisitions and qualifications. And where unqualified applicants are automatically rejected.
  • Eliminate the Probation Department’s exemption from the public records law for job performance of its employees.

Winslow’s proposal would restore the public’s confidence and would certainly put an end to the patronage problem at the Probation Department. While the Senate proposal would certainly improve the current situation – it leaves significant room for abuses to continue.

Without Public Outcry, Robert DeLeo Will Certainly Kill the Senate Measure

Robert DeLeo

The problems with corruption are much more serious in the House of Representatives. Centralization of power there has meant that Speakers rule with almost absolute power. The only Representatives who meet with any success there are the kind willing to play along with insider interests.

Speaker Robert DeLeo is among the representatives deeply entangled in the patronage mess. Chief Probation Officer is the kind of job usually reserved for probation officers with deep experience who have served the department for decades. But at age 28, Robert DeLeo’s godson is the youngest Chief Probation officer in Massachusetts.

It’s not surprising then that when the Herald today asked DeLeo for his reaction to the Senate proposal he has this to say:

“Let’s let the review process work its way out. That’s what it’s all about. The fact that there were various allegations made doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re factual.”

In other words – lets hope this all blows over.

Meanwhile, DeLeo is hoping to force the Senate to approve his unpopular casino bill, and deeply unpopular slots option by holding up legislation to control health care costs.

The public should watch closely who opposes even the Senate’s modest proposal. I’m confident the usual suspects will work some closed door legislative mechanism to kill reform: Rep. Robert DeLeo, Rep. Thomas Petrolati, and Rep. Mike Rush.

Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty is House Chair of the Judiciary Committee, and a notorious sycophant of a long list of disgraced former speakers. He has a chance here to redeem himself and to stand up for the voting public. Let’s see what he does when the reform amendment goes back to the House.