Globe Editorial

DeLeo, Cahill should stop downplaying Probation mess

May 28, 2010

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IF HOUSE SPEAKER Robert DeLeo and state Treasurer Timothy Cahill are unhappy about the conversion of the Massachusetts Probation Department into a hotbed of political patronage, they’ve done a great job of hiding it. And while DeLeo and Cahill have both denied doing anything wrong, their tepid responses to a gross violation of the public trust inspire little confidence.

As the Globe Spotlight Team reported this week, Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien is at the center of a web of politically connected personnel moves and seemingly strategic campaign contributions. On Monday, when DeLeo met with Governor Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray to discuss what to do about the troubled agency, Patrick and Murray floated two competing ideas: Patrick wants to absorb probation into the executive branch; Murray prefers to let the judiciary handle the agency’s troubles. In contrast, DeLeo declined to criticize the department, and urged lawmakers not to act before seeing the results of a formal review — which might not be done before the end of this year’s legislative session.

DeLeo is vulnerable to criticism in the scandal; O’Brien’s department hired DeLeo’s godson. And while the speaker says he played no role in that decision, his wait-and-see approach bespeaks no particular urgency about fixing a department that is now accountable only to itself. The House leadership has also failed to embrace even a modest Senate measure to give the judiciary power to oversee 5 percent of the probation budget and to veto personnel moves in the department.

Cahill, a candidate for governor, is vulnerable as well. He hired O’Brien’s wife and daughter, and dozens of O’Brien’s employees have donated to Cahill’s campaign chest. The treasurer at least endorsed restoring probation to judicial control. Yet Cahill’s implication that patronage is a part of politics is infuriating. “Does that not happen in government all the time?’’ he asked, adding, “Obviously, it is part of the political process.’’ This is what he tells reporters when he’s running for higher office? His disclaimer — “It’s an unfortunate part when it’s been brought to this level’’ — hardly reassures of his commitment to hiring on merit.

Top officials can legitimately differ on how to fix the probation mess. But especially at a moment when schools and homeless shelters are under financial pressure, and when taxpayers have had to dig deeper, no one should accept the kind of patronage that Cahill takes as a given — and no one should downplay the need for immediate reform of the Probation Department.

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