Top Beacon Hill leaders meet on agency but emerge divided

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick wants to place the state’s Probation Department under his control. Citing “separation of powers,’’ Senate President Therese Murray suggests that the agency’s problems should handled by the judiciary. And House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo says lawmakers should wait for the results of an investigation before doing anything.

Beacon Hill’s top three leaders met yesterday for 30 minutes to discuss the crisis enveloping the probation agency following a Globe Spotlight report Sunday that found the agency riddled with patronage hires and subject to little oversight of its spending.

They emerged at loggerheads over what, if anything, to do.

Nine years ago, lawmakers took the Probation Department’s hiring authority away from judges and gave it to the agency’s commissioner, John J. O’Brien, and yesterday, their reaction to reports of widespread hiring and spending problems under his watch was decidedly mixed.

DeLeo — whose 28-year-old godson, Brian Mirasolo, is the state’s youngest chief probation officer — had the most muted reaction as he pointedly declined to criticize the Probation Department.

He said lawmakers should wait until Paul F. Ware, a former Big Dig investigator who was appointed yesterday to investigate the department, completes his review before acting on any proposal. Ware’s investigation is expected to take up to 90 days, at which point the Legislature will have ended its session for the year.

“Let’s let the review process work its way out,’’ DeLeo said. “That’s what it’s all about. The fact that there were various allegations made doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re factual.’’

DeLeo did say he played no role in his godson’s hiring at the agency.

“I had nothing to do relative to his hiring, nothing to do relative to his promotion,’’ DeLeo said. “And whatever review process is there in terms of . . . hiring and promoting, then so be it.’’

Murray, asked about problems in the Probation Department, walked briskly through a scrum of reporters on her way in to a meeting with the governor. Saying that the Globe report was “very distressing,’’ she said she and the governor “have a difference of opinion’’ about placing the agency under control of the executive branch of government because, she said, “I believe in the separation of powers.’’

Murray said senators would discuss possible changes to the department in a closed caucus today and consider them as part of their debate on the state budget later this week.

“I think there needs to be oversight and better management,’’ Murray said.

Patrick strongly condemned the Probation Department’s management, calling it a “rogue agency’’ and urging the Legislature to adopt a measure he filed in January to transfer control of the relatively autonomous department to the Executive Office of Public Safety. He argued that the proposal would save money, increase oversight, and allow for better integration of probation and parole services.

Patrick said the decision by the state’s top two judges to place the probation commissioner on paid leave was “a step, but it’s not enough.’’

“What we need is an overhaul of probation,’’ the governor said. “We need an accountable agency, instead of the unaccountable and to some extent rogue agency that it is today. We need professional and rigorous oversight of the money management and employment issues over there. And changing out the leadership, or suspending the leadership, does not begin to get at that. I think we have to get at that.’’

But the state’s chief administrative judge, Robert A. Mulligan, said he hopes Ware’s investigation does not accelerate momentum for Patrick’s plan to take control of the agency.

“What’s troubling about this is that it does give some impetus to the governor’s legislation,’’ Mulligan said. “If probation is moved to the executive branch, the necessary confidence and the necessary connection between the judge and the probation officer will be diminished.’’

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles D. Baker and independent candidate Timothy P. Cahill also said they want the Probation Department to be controlled by the judiciary, not the executive branch.

“The problems within the Probation Department run far and run deep, and it shouldn’t have taken a news story for Beacon Hill to wake up to the well-chronicled crisis there,’’ Baker said in a statement. “The leaders on Beacon Hill must immediately come together to reform the system by placing the department’s purview under the courts,’’ as proposed in a budget amendment by Baker’s running mate, Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei.

On Sunday, Patrick and Baker called on Attorney General Martha Coakley to open an investigation. Cahill, at first, said that was unnecessary. Yesterday, he changed his mind.

“There are issues over there which warrant this investigation,’’ he said in an interview.

Cahill, the state treasurer, said he knows O’Brien, a fellow Quincy resident, but said politics played no role in his decision to hire O’Brien’s wife and daughter. He said he was unaware that several dozen probation employees donated to his campaign in the summer of 2005, weeks before O’Brien’s wife was hired by the Massachusetts State Lottery, which Cahill oversees.

“There’s no connection,’’ said Cahill. “I don’t know when the fund-raiser took place. I’m not denying I’ve known these people, but I want to make clear they [O’Brien’s wife and daughter] were qualified and the jobs were open when they were filled.’’

Cahill added: “I never talk to Jack O’Brien in a work-related environment. He never called me for any member of his family.’’

Cahill also said patronage is to some extent a part of politics. “Does that not happen in government all the time?’’ he told reporters. “Obviously, it is part of the political process. It’s an unfortunate part when it’s been brought to this level.’’

Patrick criticized Cahill for that comment. “I don’t think that’s enough of an explanation, and it’s certainly not one that’s going to satisfy me or anybody else in the general public,’’ he said.

Baker also criticized the remark. “Brushing the allegations of patronage off as business as usual is exactly what’s wrong with the system, and taxpayers deserve better than that,’’ he said.

Thomas Farragher and Andrea Estes of the Globe Spotlight Team contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at

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