Joan Vennochi

Patronage in the driver’s seat

Parole Board chairman Mark Conrad listens to a plea on the first day of hearings since officer John Maguire’s death. Parole Board chairman Mark Conrad listens to a plea on the first day of hearings since officer John Maguire’s death. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / January 9, 2011

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FROM BEHIND the wheel to hub of the patronage universe — it’s a road well-traveled in Massachusetts.

In 2006, Mark A. Conrad, a former Milton police officer, was one of Deval Patrick’s campaign drivers. In 2007, Governor Patrick appointed Conrad to the Massachusetts Parole Board. In 2008, he elevated him to chairman.

Today, Conrad is in the news because of a unanimous Parole Board decision to release Dominic Cinelli, a violent career criminal who last month killed Woburn police officer John Maguire. But Conrad’s career path is not uncommon by Bay State standards.

When terrorists hijacked two planes from Logan Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, Joseph Lawless, a former driver for Governor William Weld, was the airport’s director of public safety. His predecessor was Carmen Tammaro, a former state trooper who drove for Kitty Dukakis, wife of the governor.

Lawless, a former state trooper who headed Weld’s executive protection team, defended his credentials after they became part of post-hijacking critiques. He said critics were wrong to point fingers at him and other Massport managers when responsibility for security belonged to the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines.

Lawless might be technically correct, but it didn’t stop the firestorm over Massport’s plethora of politically connected appointees.

Politically connected chauffeurs are just one more slice of the patronage subculture.

David Harrington, another Weld driver, won appointment to the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. He lost it when he was arrested for drunken driving, although he later went to trial and was acquitted.

Stephen J. O’Neill, a onetime driver to Paul Cellucci, moved on to become the governor’s chief secretary. Then there was Anthony Dichio, part of the state trooper detail assigned to drive Cellucci. In 2002, with backing from the former governor, Dichio was appointed US marshal for Massachusetts. He lost the job after the Justice Department’s inspector general recommended that he be disciplined for not showing up to work and misusing his official vehicle.

Many politicians served stints as drivers. To mention just a few:

As a state senator from Hudson, Cellucci drove George H.W. Bush around Massachusetts, and so did Andrew Card, who went on to become chief of staff to George W. Bush. Tom Menino chauffeured Boston mayoral hopeful Joe Timilty, but only Menino propelled himself to the mayor’s office. Stephen Murphy, the new president of the Boston City Council, drove the late Boston City Councilor Dapper O’Neil, who drove Boston Mayor James Michael Curley.

But using the driver’s seat as launch pad for a career in elective politics differs from allowing it to be used as a launch pad for a political appointee. In Conrad’s case, Patrick put an ex-driver in a very sensitive spot, where his votes, and those of fellow board members, have life or death consequences.

The six-member Parole Board voted unanimously to grant parole to Cinelli. All are responsible for their votes. But the chairman sets a tone.

During his confirmation hearing before the Governor’s Council, Conrad said he would make decisions based on “fairness.’’ He also acknowledged some decisions might turn out wrong.

His appointment was opposed by Governor’s Councilor Mary-Ellen Manning, who said he was unqualified for the position.

“The Parole Board is a rudderless ship, without strong leadership and a deep understanding of parole and the public safety and public policy aspects of parole,’’ Manning told the Associated Press in the aftermath of Maguire’s death.

Biographical information posted on the website of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security describes Conrad as a Milton police officer for almost two decades who was involved in coordinating the Drug Awareness Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) Camp and a summer youth basketball mentoring program. He holds a master’s degree from Boston University and a bachelor’s degree from Curry College, both in criminal justice. He lives in Milton, with his wife, three sons “and their spoiled labradoodle.’’

The website also describes Conrad as “a community advocate at heart’’ who is focused on “improving the lives of citizens by protecting the public while also promoting responsible offender reintegration.’’

The vote to free Cinelli resulted in the opposite. With it, Conrad traveled from the driver’s seat to the hot seat.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at