Globe Editorial

To clean up patronage pit, probation boss must go

May 25, 2010

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HONEST OPERATIONS can’t be restored to the state Probation Department as long as Commissioner John J. O’Brien retains the power to hire, fire, promote, and discipline its employees. O’Brien and his protectors in the Legislature have turned the probation office into a patronage pit — a place where political connections trump talent and funds go astray. O’Brien, who was placed on administrative leave yesterday pending an investigation, embodies what is wrong with the office. He must go, and the empire he created must be reformed.

The Globe Spotlight Team reported Sunday that 250 positions in the department are occupied by employees with personal and political connections to O’Brien and the elected officials closely allied with him. In the department he has headed since 1998, good candidates for key jobs fall away to accommodate the well-connected. O’Brien himself came to power in similar fashion — boxing out a talented deputy probation commissioner — with the help of powerful allies, including former House Speaker Thomas Finneran and John Irwin, the former chief justice for administration and management.

State lawmakers over the years have done everything in their power to insulate probation commissioners from upright judges and the public, even granting an unlimited term to the holder of the office. Yesterday, Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert Mulligan finally brought the hammer down. Citing concerns for the integrity of the department, Mulligan and the justices of the Supreme Judicial Court placed O’Brien on leave and ordered an independent counsel to investigate.

O’Brien should resign immediately. If he fails to do so, his legislative enablers should stand aside as the investigation proceeds. Lawmakers control the court budget and haven’t been shy in the past about humiliating judges who threaten their job bank or campaign coffers.

Some lawmakers are fighting back. State Senator Richard Tisei of Wakefield has filed an amendment that would strip the probation commissioner of exclusive hiring powers, returning control to judges. Tisei would also limit the probation commissioner’s job to a 5-year term. That might solve the problem, as long as the probation chief works under a chief justice of Mulligan’s temperament. But future judges with less gumption would still be vulnerable to the Legislature’s arm-twisting. A better solution rests with Governor Patrick’s proposal to place the Probation Department under the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, similar to parole and corrections. Civil Service tests for probation officers would help to screen out candidates with nothing to offer other than political juice.

O’Brien has played the political game shrewdly. But the Probation Department shouldn’t be a personal fiefdom. It has a vital role in protecting public safety, and it can’t operate with a leader so unworthy of the public’s trust.

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