Hard questions loom for patronage ‘king’

Investigations are swirling around Representative Thomas Petrolati, a legislative leader with huge sway over Probation Department hiring and a history of acting as if ordinary rules do not apply to him.

Petrolati at one of his fund-raisers in Ludlow. Petrolati at one of his fund-raisers in Ludlow. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
October 24, 2010

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This story was reported and written by the Globe Spotlight Team: reporters Scott Allen, Marcella Bombardieri, and Andrea Estes, and editor Thomas Farragher.

The 26-year-old woman said state Representative Thomas M. Petrolati had pestered her for weeks with phone calls at work, “asking me out [and] refusing to take no for an answer.’’ A few weeks later, when Jill Gagne was fired, she protested to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination that it was because she had complained about Petrolati’s advances.

Petrolati, a married man who had just begun his ascent of the Beacon Hill power structure when the complaint was filed in 1996, said he only wanted to enlist Gagne as a campaign volunteer — in an election for which he faced no opposition. Her employer, the Ludlow Boys & Girls Club, said Gagne was dismissed for unrelated professional lapses, and the MCAD ultimately agreed, drawing no conclusions about Petrolati’s behavior.

But Petrolati did not wait passively for a ruling that could determine his political fate, according to recent testimony given to the special counsel investigating rigged hiring practices at the state Probation Department. Instead, he allegedly used his influence at Probation in an attempt to pressure a key witness in the case.

On the same day that club executive director James G. Moriarty was questioned by an MCAD investigator, his wife received an unexpected call from a Westfield District Court employee inviting her to interview for a Probation opening, Moriarty told special counsel Paul F. Ware Jr., according to a source with direct knowledge of the testimony. Months earlier, a Petrolati aide had told Moriarty that his wife was no longer in the running for a job.

Moriarty told investigators that he believes Petrolati was behind the sudden reversal, and he saw it as a clear attempt to influence his testimony.

“It was too much of a damn coincidence,’’ Moriarty told Ware, the source familiar with his testimony said.

Petrolati, a top deputy to the last three speakers of the House, has emerged as a major figure of interest in Ware’s investigation, marking the third time in four years that Petrolati’s conduct has been under scrutiny by state or federal investigators. Petrolati has more influence than any other politician over the Probation Department, where his wife and more than 100 financial backers now work, and where his contributors run 19 of the 25 probation offices between Worcester and the New York border. He is regarded by many members of the Western Massachusetts delegation as the “king of patronage.’’

Meanwhile, federal agents from both the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service have been asking questions about Petrolati’s ties to a real estate developer and whether he received any financial benefit for helping supporters obtain state jobs, individuals interviewed by investigators have told the Spotlight Team.

Petrolati has refused to comment on the investigations, the alleged harassment, or his influence over probation hiring, despite numerous requests from the Globe over several months. At Petrolati’s request, the Spotlight Team provided questions in writing on three occasions, but he still declined to respond.

Using influence
Tom Petrolati describes himself mainly as a tireless booster for his Western Massachusetts constituents, but a close review of his record reveals a deliberately low-profile player who doesn’t hesitate to use his influence to advance his personal interests. It is the portrait of a politician who makes up for an unabashed lack of interest in policy details with a keen appetite for behind-the-scenes deal-making. That style has allowed him to remain in the Democratic leadership despite close association with not one but two speakers who resigned while under criminal investigation.

Petrolati’s career also offers a glimpse into the nature of power on Beacon Hill, where key legislators can translate control over government budgets into favors for friends, family, and even themselves. Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien, for years until he was suspended from his job last May, routinely pressured local hiring committees to give special consideration to Petrolati’s favored job candidates, according to Probation employees directly involved in the department’s hiring process.

“If you contributed to [Petrolati’s] campaign, chances are you were going to be promoted,’’ said one probation official who regularly took part in hiring under O’Brien.

That commanding influence became the foundation of a patronage empire that permeates some courthouses from the guards at the door to the clerk-magistrates who preside over hearings, and may have helped elevate Petrolati’s wife, Kathleen, to an $88,058-a-year probation manager. It has also helped Petrolati amass the Legislature’s third-largest campaign fund — $537,206 — even though he has faced just one general election opponent in 24 years.

Federal investigators have been broadly reviewing Petrolati’s conduct for at least two years, sources tell the Globe, though it’s unclear what, if anything, they’ve found. Spokespeople for the FBI and IRS declined to comment.

But it is clear that Petrolati is reluctant to talk about his role in finding probation jobs for family, friends, and supporters. He made an unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court to avoid answering Ware’s questions, arguing that the special counsel had no authority to investigate legislators.

So far, current House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo is standing behind Petrolati, the third-ranked House leader, allowing him to continue presiding over the House when DeLeo is absent. The speaker’s office declined comment on Petrolati last week.

But the Spotlight Team has uncovered a pattern of questionable conduct by Petrolati that may threaten his standing in the Legislature, and makes clear why he has attracted so much investigative scrutiny:

■ Petrolati sold insurance policies to colleagues, State House employees, and private businesses from 2002 to 2004 without obtaining a license or taking a required competency exam. He didn’t even disclose that he was in the insurance business, or that his wife had a stake in an insurance firm, in his annual statements to the state ethics commission or in business documents filed with the secretary of state. In 2004, the year the firm was sold, he finally disclosed that his wife was a “shareholder/director’’ of the company, and Kathleen Petrolati obtained an insurance license the same year. But multiple sources with first-hand knowledge of the enterprise said that it was Petrolati, not his wife, who was selling insurance policies.

■ Petrolati’s fund-raising machine has raised tens of thousands of dollars over the past decade from contributors whose gifts came just before or after they received a state job or a promotion, suggesting that they may have been investing in Petrolati’s political clout to help attain those positions.

For example, at least eight security guards in Springfield area courts — where one of Petrolati’s closest friends as well as his brother-in-law are senior managers — began donating heavily to Petrolati within a year of being hired, together pumping more than $9,500 into Petrolati’s campaign over the last seven years. One, Springfield court officer Jason Martowski, told at least two co-workers that Petrolati helped him get a job, then began giving to Petrolati several months after he was hired in 2004. Martowski declined to comment.

■ Petrolati has used his clout with O’Brien, the probation commissioner, to settle some personal scores, including his long-standing resentment toward Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe for not hiring more of Petrolati’s candidates. According to sources with direct knowledge of the dispute, Petrolati persuaded O’Brien to block a promotion for Ashe’s son, Stephen, in the Springfield probation department in 2005, prompting Ashe to appeal to Petrolati to make peace. Within months, O’Brien had promoted Ashe’s son; since then, Ashe’s family and staff have dramatically increased campaign gifts to Petrolati. In addition, Sheriff Ashe hired several Petrolati supporters.

■ Petrolati was deeply enmeshed in controversial chapters in the careers of two House speakers that helped drive both men from office. He led the ill-fated revision of the state’s legislative boundaries in 2001 that led to perjury charges against Thomas M. Finneran. And a recently unsealed court filing from Attorney General Martha Coakley portrays him as the main person whom Salvatore F. DiMasi’s accountant relied on to carry out an illegal lobbying campaign on behalf of the state’s ticket brokers in 2006 and 2007. Petrolati’s attorney said his client did not help with the campaign.

Although Petrolati was never charged with wrongdoing in either case, he emerged from both episodes with the lasting enmity of some loyalists to both DiMasi and Finneran who felt Petrolati had turned on them. Some Finneran loyalists view his testimony as the key to the federal government’s obstruction of justice case against Finneran, while friends of DiMasi say the former speaker resented the way Petrolati started helping DeLeo campaign for speaker before DiMasi had even resigned.

The scandals have cost Petrolati another way: his campaign has run up more than $50,000 in legal bills in the last two years, and the investigative scrutiny continues. Ware is expected to release his report on the probation department after the election, while the federal probe appears to be more open-ended.

Tommy of Ludlow
Tom Petrolati doesn’t do interviews; at one point he literally fled when he spied a Spotlight Team reporter waiting for him outside a coffee shop in Ludlow. And on Beacon Hill, he rarely files bills, preferring to do his work without drawing public attention.

But 80 miles away, in his hometown of Ludlow, he is simply “Tommy’’ — the reliable smiling presence who jogs through the old mill town’s center at lunchtime, waving to neighbors who remember him as the dutiful son of a beloved paint and wallpaper store owner.

The younger Petrolati left Ludlow long enough to go to college, then returned to begin his political career as both a selectman and an aide to the local state senator, Martin Reilly. He moved on to the state Legislature two years later promising to “bring a distant government closer to the people.’’

Petrolati got his big break in the Legislature in April 1996 when Finneran challenged then-majority leader Richard A. Voke for the House speakership. Most Democratic legislators opposed Finneran, but Petrolati helped Finneran build a winning coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Finneran repaid him with a leadership post.

Finneran said he had no illusions about Petrolati’s skills.

“Tommy Petrolati? Oh, yeah, I had him kind of like a floor whip or something like that. And I think internally in the Legislature he is seen as somebody who listens closely, and if a rep has a question or a concern, he tries to get back to them,’’ Finneran said in an interview earlier this year. “I don’t think Tommy himself would ever present himself as an issues guy.’’

Unfortunately for Finneran, the biggest task he entrusted to Petrolati — redrawing districts after the 2000 US Census — could hardly have gone further awry. After black and Latino activists sued over Petrolati’s plan, a panel of judges found it shortchanged minority voters in order to protect incumbents — including Finneran himself, whose Mattapan district grew significantly whiter.

Finneran claimed that he wasn’t familiar with the redistricting plan before Petrolati released it, but Petrolati testified that he spoke to Finneran about his district. When a grand jury indicted Finneran for perjury, the indictment listed eight discussions about redistricting in which Finneran took part. Seven included Petrolati.

As the lawsuit unfolded, Petrolati portrayed himself as disengaged from every aspect of the redistricting process — except looking out for incumbents. He took no notes at public hearings and refused to communicate with advocates, one of whom said he belittled her concerns by swinging an imaginary golf club to indicate what he was doing instead of responding to her messages — an episode Petrolati testified that he didn’t remember.

He said he couldn’t use the computer software that drew the redistricting maps. He didn’t know Chelsea and East Boston had big Latino populations or that Charlestown had struggled with racial tensions for decades. He said he seldom read the Boston newspapers.

“I’m very parochial in my approach to government,’’ Petrolati testified when the lawsuit went to trial.

Under the cloud of the federal investigation, Finneran resigned and ultimately pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. By then, Petrolati had moved on to a new boss, emerging as the right-hand man of Sal DiMasi, who gave him a newly created leadership role, speaker pro tempore. By 2007, numerous State House sources say, he often controlled access to the speaker’s office.

DiMasi’s friend and personal accountant, Richard Vitale, began lobbying secretly in 2006 for the state’s ticket brokers — who were chafing under the state’s ban on scalping — around the same time that Vitale gave the speaker a $250,000 mortgage. Petrolati was the accountant’s main State House contact, and in e-mails Vitale repeatedly described the representative as taking orders: “Petro was instructed to go over to the Senate and find out what is going on,’’ he wrote on one occasion, according to a court document. Vitale exchanged numerous cellphone calls with Petrolati, sent couriers to bring him messages about legislative language marked confidential, and met with him in out-of-the-way spots, prosecutors say. Vitale donated $250 to Petrolati’s campaign during the same period.

The bill passed the House but died in the Senate, where DiMasi and Petrolati had less influence.

Petrolati’s attorney at the time, Jack St. Clair, said last year that his client “played no integral role, other than to vote on the bill because it was good legislation.’’ A source familiar with the attorney general’s review said that Coakley did not seek charges against Petrolati because he did not stand to profit from passing the ticket brokers’ bill.

Vitale was indicted in the ticket brokers case in December 2008. Six months later, DiMasi, Vitale, and two others were indicted on federal corruption charges; prosecutors say DiMasi took tens of thousands of dollars to help a software company win state contracts, a deal in which Petrolati had no known role. By the time of the indictment, DiMasi had already resigned as speaker and Petrolati had been reappointed speaker pro tempore by DiMasi’s successor, DeLeo.

At a February 2009 press conference, DeLeo declared, “Take a look at the team as a whole, and I think you’ll be impressed with the talent and knowledge that we have.’’

Fund-raising empire
Petrolati can see the heart of his fund-raising empire from the front lawn of his home in Ludlow, a neat brick house he acquired from his father in 1989.

Just up the hill, not a five minute walk, sits the Ludlow Country Club where Petrolati hosts the political events that have helped him amass his impressive campaign fund. At his annual springtime gala, he appeared to be as ebullient as the salmon-colored tie around his neck.

Among those who ponied up was Manny Moutinho, Petrolati’s classmate from Ludlow High’s class of ’75. Petrolati successfully lobbied to help get Moutinho his $110,220-a-year clerk-magistrate job in Holyoke. Moutinho and his extended family have returned the affection, giving Petrolati nearly $4,000 in campaign contributions since 2002. Childhood friend Andre Pereira bought a ticket, too. After serving as Petrolati’s legislative aide, Pereira landed a $74,350-a-year probation job; two of Pereira’s nieces were also hired at probation.

Fully a quarter of the contributors listed in Petrolati’s 2010 campaign report work for the courts or the county jail, a Spotlight Team analysis shows. From a courthouse custodian to a former attorney general whose daughter works for the courts, they buy the $100 tickets each spring to bolster Petrolati or, as some resentfully put it, to “kiss the ring’’ of the powerful man.

Fittingly, the master of ceremonies this year was the former deputy probation commissioner in charge of filling jobs in Western Massachusetts until he retired in 2008. William H. Burke III said in an interview that he likes Petrolati so much, “If I had 500 extra dollars, I’d give it to him.’’ And why shouldn’t Burke admire him? Though Petrolati recuses himself from voting on probation issues because of his wife’s employment, one State House confidant of Petrolati’s said he has played a lead role behind the scenes over the years, dramatically increasing Probation’s budget.

Petrolati’s patronage machine extends to courthouse employment across a broad expanse of Western Massachusetts, geographically almost half of the state. Campaign records show that at least 160 employees of the courts and the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office and their families have given Petrolati more than $100,000 in campaign gifts since 2002.

Although Petrolati declined requests for an interview, in a written statement earlier this year he said he advocates only for qualified job candidates. “I don’t know how many people I have recommended over the 23 years I have served in the Legislature, but I have been happy to recommend qualified candidates whether they were constituents of mine or not,’’ Petrolati said. “Public service is fundamentally about helping people.’’

But several of Ware’s witnesses said they have given the special prosecutor an earful in response to his numerous questions about Petrolati’s influence over probation personnel.

“I said the word is that it’s pretty much a given fact that anything west of Worcester, you don’t get anything unless you go through Petrolati,’’ said Jack Alicandro, the recently retired president of the union that represents probation officers, who was interviewed by Ware in early October. “I get this through my members who say in order to get a job out there you have to go through Petrolati.’’

Petrolati’s influence over Probation Commissioner O’Brien was so great that O’Brien apparently blocked a promotion for the son of Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe at Petrolati’s urging, according to two sources directly involved in the dispute. The younger Ashe had been a top contender for the promotion at Springfield District Court in December 2005, said one source, but Petrolati was angry that the sheriff wasn’t hiring enough of his job candidates and “Stephen got caught in the middle.’’

O’Brien and Petrolati declined to comment.

At Ashe’s request, Petrolati met with the sheriff at least twice in early 2006 to improve communication, according to sources close to Ashe. Since then, Stephen Ashe has been promoted twice, while Ashe’s family and senior managers have quadrupled donations to Petrolati, giving a collective $7,000 since 2007. Sheriff Ashe also hired several strong Petrolati supporters, though there was no overall increase in hiring of Ludlow residents. But one Ashe confidant said Petrolati seemed more concerned with respect than jobs anyway: “He wanted to show Ashe who was the biggest dog.’’

Insurance business
If Petrolati was a master at building a patronage machine, he was also adept at using his influence to beef up his own income.

In 2002, with one teenager at an expensive prep school and another coming up behind, Petrolati, who made $61,104 as a legislative leader, began selling insurance to people he knew and worked with at the State House.

Early in the last decade, Petrolati persuaded DiMasi and DiMasi’s senior aide to buy insurance from the fledgling firm in which his wife was a part owner, according to a DiMasi friend, while a Boston area business consultant said he nearly purchased a massive policy from Petrolati that could have netted the legislative leader a $1 million commission.

“I haven’t asked you for much,’’ one friend quoted Petrolati as saying just before the legislator sold him a policy from the firm, Your Choice Insurance Agency of Ludlow. “I’m thinking, ‘What choice do I have?’ I was very uncomfortable.’’

An executive at FieldEddy, the company that bought out Your Choice in 2004, told the Globe that Kathleen Petrolati was a minority owner and noted that she — and not her husband — attended the 2004 closing on the sale. Tom Petrolati is not listed as an owner or officer of the company in state documents.

Petrolati may have violated numerous laws in the insurance venture, legal and insurance experts say. First, he failed to disclose the family’s ownership to the Ethics Commission until 2004, and then only named his wife’s interest, even though he told people at the State House that he was a partner in the firm. Second, he did not obtain a legally required license to sell insurance while his wife obtained hers just days before the firm was sold.

“Anyone engaged in selling, soliciting, or negotiating a contract for insurance is required to be licensed,’’ according to Jason Lefferts, spokesman for the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

Finally, it’s illegal under state conflict of interest law to seek business from someone who is in an “inherently coercive situation’’ — meaning the buyer feels he has little or no choice in the transaction. It is a provision which the state Ethics Commission has interpreted to largely prohibit legislators from soliciting subordinates and anyone else who may need their help in the future.

Petrolati did not respond to detailed written questions about his insurance dealings delivered to his home and office.

Petrolati also declined requests to discuss the 1996 MCAD complaint that he had sexually harassed the young woman at the Ludlow Boys & Girls Club, where he was an honorary board member.

At the time, Petrolati denied doing anything inappropriate, but Moriarty, the Boys & Girls Club director, contradicted Petrolati in his testimony to special prosecutor Ware, according to the source with direct knowledge of his testimony.

According to the source, Moriarty said Petrolati was so concerned about avoiding bad publicity that his aide pressed Moriarty to help him lobby a local newspaper against publishing a story regarding Jill Gagne’s complaint. When Moriarty declined, the staffer told Moriarty that his wife would no longer be considered for a probation job, the source said. (Moriarty’s wife eventually interviewed for a probation job, but never worked there.)

A few months later, in early 2007, the MCAD dismissed Gagne’s complaint, concluding that she lost her job because of “inappropriate actions and comments’’ to a parent at the club and not because of her run-in with Petrolati. However, the investigator drew no conclusion about Petrolati, noting that the club had taken “corrective action’’ in response to Gagne’s complaint. Moriarty told Ware that he believed her harassment claim, according to the source.

Gagne, in an interview, said that Petrolati had repeatedly made “sexually charged’’ calls to her over a period of six weeks, and made unwanted advances in person, too, only stopping after she threatened to tell his wife.

“Every time I turned around, he was there. He was always in my face. After work. In work. He was everywhere,’’ said Gagne. The Globe has agreed not to use her married name because she said she is afraid of retribution.

She said she discussed the incident only reluctantly because she believes Petrolati’s political power has insulated him from accountability.

“What’s going to happen to him? Is he going to be removed from office?’’ she asked.

Then she shook her head and noted that — for the 12th time in 13 general elections — Petrolati will appear on next week’s ballot without an opponent.

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