Brian McGrory

The same old sad story

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / November 19, 2010

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You could drive yourself crazy trying to pick out the most outrageous facts in independent counsel Paul Ware’s utterly extraordinary indictment of politics as usual in Massachusetts, available at a computer near you as of yesterday. There are that many.

Maybe it’s the “sponsor lists’’ that probation officials carefully kept, ranking job applicants by the legislators who backed them. Or perhaps it’s the buffoonish probation commissioner John O’Brien working a state cafeteria for campaign contributions so that Tim Cahill would hire his wife.

Or could it be old friend Tom Finneran, the convicted former House speaker who knows disgrace but apparently not shame, refusing to cooperate in the inquiry?

In the course of 307 gripping pages, Ware portrayed a critical state agency that morphed into a possibly criminal enterprise, where the commissioner hired and promoted based on whether applicants were supported by the right legislators while the public was taken for a ride. A river of money ran through the process; applicants gave legislators campaign contributions, and legislators rubber-stamped bloated budgets for probation officials.

Ware minces no words in describing job interviews that were “vacant rituals,’’ a hiring process “orchestrated from beginning to end in favor of connected candidates,’’ and a commissioner — O’Brien — “engaged in potentially criminal fraud.’’

The report is all the more stunning because we are accustomed to so little from our prosecutors in fighting public corruption. The state attorney general’s office is where allegations too often go to die, and the feds seem perfectly content with small targets unless the Globe happens to drop someone like Sal DiMasi at their door.

And yet, as critical as Ware’s report is, it’s what’s not in it that may prove most devastating to the public trust.

Hours after the Globe’s Spotlight Team took apart the Probation Department stitch by stitch in May, Ware was tapped by judicial leaders to analyze what went wrong and how to fix it. He and his Goodwin Procter team have done that very well.

But they were charged with examining the Probation Department, when the problem went far beyond. There are dozens of legislators in offices up and down the spit-shined marble hallways of the State House who are accessories to the potential crimes.

They are current and former House speakers, vocal members of the state Senate, men and women who have so thoroughly violated the public trust that there’s no clear path to getting it back.

Robert DeLeo got his godson a job among the dozen people he recommended to the department. Representative Thomas Petrolati, the patronage king of Western Massachusetts, treated probation like his own kingdom and has brimming campaign coffers to prove it. Mark Montigny, Bob Travaglini, DiMasi, and Jack Hart — abusers, all.

DeLeo did not return a phone call yesterday, though his office issued an unintentionally hilarious two-line statement saying, “The Independent Counsel’s report appears to make some very disturbing allegations. I will be closely reviewing its findings to determine if any legislative action is appropriate.’’

I wouldn’t wait by your TV for news that the lions of the Legislature have condemned themselves.

In his report, Ware listed all the damage done to the qualified applicants and the reputation of the department.

But there’s a larger problem that goes beyond John O’Brien, beyond his enablers, beyond the Massachusetts Probation Department. As the department’s legal counsel, Chris Bulger, (yes, of those Bulgers) testified to Ware, “This is something that happens everywhere.’’

Even if it’s not, it’s what people are made to believe, that in every agency across every level of government, everybody’s just looking out for themselves, the common good be damned.

O’Brien may or may not go to jail. Probation may or may not be successfully overhauled. But the rest of us are still going to have the same legislators looking for the same corrupt opportunities within a system that has come to accept it.

Who will do something about that?

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at