Probation commissioner suspended

Court orders investigation into agency

By Thomas Farragher and Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

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Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien was stripped of his duties yesterday as the state’s highest court appointed a special counsel to conduct a “prompt and thorough’’ investigation into the state agency.

The Supreme Judicial Court named Paul F. Ware Jr., a senior Boston trial counsel with broad experience investigating alleged public corruption, as independent counsel, granted him subpoena power, and asked him to finish his probe of the Probation Department within 90 days. Ware, who will have the power to collect testimony under oath, declined to say whether crimes may have been committed.

“That is the purpose of any investigation,’’ he said, “for the independent counsel, or perhaps others, to make judgments regarding what, if any, civil or criminal action is warranted.’’

O’Brien’s suspension, with pay, was announced a day after the Globe Spotlight Team detailed his tenure at a probation agency that is pervaded with patronage jobs, in which political contributions are often associated with advancement, and where lax financial oversight has left the department vulnerable to theft.

“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,’’ Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Judge Robert A. Mulligan, the trial court’s chief justice for administration and management, said in a joint statement.

“The reporting by the Globe Spotlight Team requires a full, prompt, and independent inquiry,’’ the judges said.

Mulligan said he met with O’Brien in the judge’s office opposite Government Center early yesterday to deliver the news.

“I met with him and told him what I was doing,’’ Mulligan said.

O’Brien told the Associated Press yesterday that he was disappointed with the court’s decision. He said every one of his appointments has to be approved by Mulligan, who also has to approve that the hiring process had been followed correctly.

“They talk about a rogue agency,’’ O’Brien said. “I answer to the chief justice [Mulligan]. I don’t know what anybody means by rogue agency.’’

O’Brien will receive his $130,000 annual salary while under investigation, because the allegations are unproven.

The court leadership’s decision to investigate O’Brien halts, at least temporarily, his 12-year career leading a department with more than 2,000 employees that is responsible for supervising thousands of people convicted of crimes and sentenced to serve time in the community.

Asked whether he could foresee O’Brien returning to his job, Mulligan said, “I’m not going to prejudge the result of the investigation. The investigation will speak for itself, and whatever the result, we will act accordingly.’’

Marshall and Mulligan named Ronald P. Corbett Jr., executive director of the Supreme Judicial Court, as acting administrator of the probation agency. Corbett was the consensus choice for the top probation job in 1998, when O’Brien was promoted instead.

Corbett, with Mulligan at his side, met with O’Brien’s staff at a Beacon Hill office building opposite the State House early yesterday afternoon to calm the anxiety of top probation officials, who for years had answered to O’Brien, a tough taskmaster and a man of force and ambition.

Corbett, formerly a deputy probation commissioner, is a Harvard graduate and a former president of the National Association of Probation Executives.

“We’re fortunate to have someone of [Corbett’s] ability to be able and willing to go in there,’’ Mulligan said.

The SJC’s order naming Ware the independent counsel says he will investigate alleged improprieties “with respect to the hiring and promotion of employees within the Probation Department, as well as other practices and management.’’

“It has come to the attention of the justices that the hiring and promotion of employees within the Probation Department of the trial court allegedly are based on reasons other than merit, which is a matter of concern to the public and to all members of the judicial branch,’’ the SJC’s order states. The order, signed by all seven justices, asks Ware to make recommendations “with respect to indications or findings of misconduct, if any’’ within 90 days or as soon as possible.

The news of O’Brien’s suspension ricocheted across the judicial landscape yesterday, lighting up phone lines in courthouses across the state.

Attorney General Martha Coakley welcomed the independent counsel’s investigation. “We believe that a review by Paul Ware will be thorough and completed expeditiously,’’ Coakley said in a statement. “We anticipate that should Mr. Ware encounter matters that warrant review or investigation by the attorney general’s office, he will refer them to our office.’’

Governor Deval Patrick said the probation agency should be transferred from the judiciary to the executive branch, where it would have stronger oversight, but he found little support from legislative leaders.

And Patrick sparred with his reelection challengers over who was to blame, and what to do next. Republican Charles D. Baker and independent Timothy P. Cahill said the judiciary should be granted more oversight over probation, but they rejected Patrick’s proposal for more control by the executive branch.

Scott Allen and Marcella Bombardieri of the Globe Spotlight Team and Michael Levenson and Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. The Spotlight Team would like to hear from readers with tips about the state’s Probation Department. The telephone number is 617-929-3208. Confidential messages can also be left at 617-929-7483. The e-mail address is

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