Scot Lehigh

DeLeo needs to clean his House

Tom Petrolati 'gives the House a black eye,' says one lawmaker. Tom Petrolati "gives the House a black eye," says one lawmaker.
By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / May 26, 2010

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THE STATE’S TOP judges have finally struck a blow against the Commonwealth’s culture of cronyism. Now House Speaker Robert DeLeo needs to do the same.

As the Globe’s Spotlight team just reported, Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien has been busy playing pack-a-hack with Probation Department jobs, turning that vital agency into a haven for the politically connected.

On Monday, Margaret Marshall, chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, and Robert Mulligan, the trial court’s chief justice for administration and management, suspended O’Brien and appointed a special master to investigate the department.

Yet that long overdue move hardly ends the problem. DeLeo needs to clean his own House, which has long made the Probation Department — and, indeed, the entire court staff — a patronage dumping ground. The man who sits atop that shadowy patronage-and-fund-raising empire is the sly legislative insider DeLeo inherited from former Speaker Sal DiMasi and kept as one of his own chief lieutenants: Representative Thomas Petrolati.

Readers who relish the risible may recall the day back in 2005 when DiMasi, now under indictment for corruption, first floated the idea of creating the superfluous position of House speaker pro tem, portraying it as a job for a legislative sage whose perspective and judgment would prove pivotal in guiding the House.

Actually, the post was wired for Petro, the undistinguished legislative throwback from Ludlow who served as DiMasi’s Mini-Me. There are many things one can say about Petro. Few of them, however, would recommend him for a high-profile House leadership role.

“He gives the House a black eye,’’ says one senior lawmaker. “It is time for him to go.’’

On Monday, I asked DeLeo if the time had come to take away Petro’s leadership position. The speaker clung to the judicially initiated investigation the way a man swept away in a flood would to a tree stump.

“Let’s see what happens with the process,’’ he said. “The court system has . . . said they want a process to take a look.’’ But how could the speaker try to present himself as a bit of a reformer when one of his powerful deputies was busy larding up the Probation Department with patronage hires?

“I am not trying to be a bit of a reformer, I am a reformer in terms of what we have done in terms of legislation,’’ DeLeo insisted. “I don’t think whether Tom Petrolati is speaker pro tem or not, that does not diminish anything that we have done relative to the unbelievable reforms that we’ve brought to the House.’’

Unbelievable reforms? Uh-oh. Modesty is usually the first casualty on the ego’s journey from Speaker to King.

Actually, if you stand silently by as a key member of your team helps turn an instrumental department into a crony colony, it very much diminishes the other things you’ve done.

Nor is Petrolati the only House member meddling where he shouldn’t be. As the Globe’s Frank Phillips recently reported, the House budget includes an amendment to force Mulligan and his staff out of rented downtown office space and into ill-suited quarters above the Charlestown District Court.

DeLeo’s office claims that was driven by cost concerns. That sounds plausible. Unless, say, you know that the amendment’s sponsor is Representative Michael Rush. And that Rush is bitter at Mulligan because of a trial court report critical of his father’s controversial tenure as chief probation officer at West Roxbury District Court, a job James Rush landed courtesy of John O’Brien.

DeLeo has signaled he wants to be a different kind of speaker. And until recently, I had thought he was doing a pretty decent job.

But his embrace of the Rush amendment is troubling. And so far, his response to the Probation Department controversy has been thoroughly underwhelming.

As speaker, you are the equivalent of a statewide figure, the person the public rightly holds responsible for the conduct of your chamber. Any bad behavior you tolerate on the part of your members is bad behavior you come to own.

The sooner DeLeo recognizes those realities, the better off he — and the House he leads — will be.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at

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