Spotlight Follow-up

Calls to overhaul probation agency

Patrick, Baker press for AG investigation

By Thomas Farragher
Globe Staff / May 24, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick and his Republican challenger, Charles D. Baker, called yesterday for a sweeping overhaul in the management of the state’s Probation Department and asked the attorney general’s office to open an investigation into an agency awash in patronage jobs and hamstrung by poor financial oversight.

There were indications that Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien might have exhausted the patience of his judicial branch bosses.

Baker said O’Brien should be fired and called on Attorney General Martha Coakley to look into the connection of political donations to hiring and promotion decisions at the Probation Department.

“Enough is enough,’’ Baker said. “This has to end.’’

Patrick called for an independent review by Coakley after a Globe Spotlight Team report yester day detailed O’Brien’s leadership of a department in which political connections and contributions can be keys to advancement and where poor financial supervision has left the agency that handles $70 million in cash a year vulnerable to theft.

“An independent review by the attorney general is warranted, given [the Globe’s] story and the lack of transparency and oversight that has plagued the Probation Department,’’ Patrick, said in a statement. his office.

O’Brien has led the department for 12 years and, with strong support in the Legislature, has increasingly functioned independently of his putative boss, Judge Robert A. Mulligan, the trial court’s chief justice for administration and management.

Mulligan and Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall issued a joint statement yesterday and said they will have more to say “after appropriate consultation within the judicial branch.’’

“The recent media coverage . . . raises serious issues concerning the hiring and promotion of probation officers and other management practices within the Probation Department of the trial court,’’ the judges said. “We are deeply concerned with not only the proper administration of the Probation Department but with how such reports may affect the public’s perception of the integrity of all aspects of the judicial branch.’’

Attempts to reach Probation Department officials were unsuccessful yesterday.

Coakley’s office released a statement saying that the Globe report “raises troubling concerns.’’

“We are reviewing the situation to determine what role our office can and should play in addressing these concerns,’’ the statement said.

Baker called on his rivals in the governor’s race to join him in calling for O’Brien’s dismissal.

State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who is running as an independent, instead blasted Baker’s campaign for trying “to politicize issues for their own benefit without having a full understanding of the matters at hand.’’

Cahill has received substantial contributions from Probation Department employees. O’Brien’s wife and one of his daughters work for Cahill.

“Rather than villainizing one individual without having a full understanding of the situation, perhaps we should try to fix the root case,’’ Cahill said in a statement.

A spokesman for Patrick would not say flatly that the governor wants O’Brien to be fired. But he said the plan the governor issued in January to remove the Probation Department from the judicial branch of government and place it under the Executive Office of Public Safety would allow him to make that decision.

“The way we run our probation department has to change, and it has to change now,’’ the governor said in a statement he issued to the Globe last week. “This is an area of state government that has been untouched for far too long, and we can’t wait any longer to fix it.’’

Patrick’s proposal has been ignored, so far, by the Legislature, and never made it out of committee in the House. Senate budget deliberations are ongoing.

Patrick and Baker found rare common ground on the need to restructure the probation agency. But politics intervened there, too.

“We are glad that Charlie Baker has finally joined our call for reform of this agency, a reform that the governor has been pushing for long before today,’’ Patrick spokesman Kyle Sullivan said.

Baker said he and his rivals should unite on the issue because “this is one of these things where everyone has to come together and put up a united front.’’

“I think the governor should call for [O’Brien’s resignation] and the treasurer should call for it and Mulligan should pursue it,’’ he said.

Baker said he was particularly troubled by the Spotlight Team’s description of a “pay to play’’ mentality in the probation agency in which ambitious employees, qualified or not, make campaign contributions to key politicians in hopes of advancing their career.

“We’re talking about the supervision and monitoring and oversight of people convicted of crimes,’’ Baker said in a telephone interview. “This is heavy-duty stuff. It needs to operate without a whiff of all this back-scratching and deal-making. There are some people who appear to be very, very qualified and there’s a sense among a lot of the people [the Globe] talked to that it’s important to contribute if you want to advance.’’

Baker said he supports a proposal advanced by his running mate, Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei, to return control of Probation Department hiring to judges in the trial court, a system that had been in place before the Legislature gave O’Brien that power in 2001.

Cahill said he would support that, too.

“The Legislature created this problem by moving probation from judiciary control,’’ Cahill said. “Such controls allow for greater transparency, and I would support a move to return the agency to judiciary oversight. We have to make sure we are taking these accusations very seriously.’’

Thomas Farragher can be reached at

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