Adrian Walker

Legislature in no rush

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / November 20, 2010

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One might hope for at least muffled cries of outrage or insincere vows of reform or at least a brief moment of contrition from Beacon Hill solons implicated up to their eyeballs in the scandal at the Probation Department. But to expect anything resembling indignation would be naive, and why be naive when we have Charlie Murphy to calm us down?

“We’re not going to make rash judgments,’’ said Murphy, a Burlington Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. He said the report still has to be digested. He may as well have said, “We’re not planning to do a thing.’’

You see, the overwhelming feeling among the people who run Massachusetts politics is that nothing is really wrong here. The abuses exposed by the Globe Spotlight Team are just business as usual.

That would be appalling even if it were true, but it’s a lie. True, Jack O’Brien hardly invented patronage. But try to name an agency that has taken routine politics to the insane and toxic extreme of Ludlow Representative Tom Petrolati’s patronage machine, in which the only thing that matters isn’t who you know, but to whom you wrote a check.

But there’s more going on than this. The report by Paul F. Ware Jr. is certain to revive the longstanding battle between the legislative and judicial branches of state government, which have been at odds periodically for decades. Historically, the courts push for more autonomy, while the Legislature wants more control. Because it holds the purse strings for the system, the Legislature tends to win.

Indeed, many of the ills of the Probation Department can be traced back to 2001, when the courts ceded much of their authority over the department, transforming it into a private employment agency for lawmakers who understand how to play the game.

It’s fitting in this regard that one of the key figures in this drama is a Bulger: Deputy Commissioner Christopher J. Bulger, son of Bill. His father’s power struggles with the judiciary were legendary. No surprise that his son would see nothing wrong with the Probation Department becoming a patronage haven where no one needs to worry about a bunch of meddlesome, weak-kneed judges.

Ware has given investigators plenty to look into, but even that will not resolve all the questions raised by this investigation in the mind of many observers. While the department is clearly a rogue agency, finding consensus on what is wrong and how to fix it will not be automatic.

Governor Deval Patrick has called for giving oversight of the department to the executive branch. That might be an improvement, in the sense that its officials would finally have to answer to someone. But, logically, its functions are judicial. The problem is, judicial branch oversight wasn’t a rousing success either.

At any rate, the questions raised are broad. “This is probably a good time to look at court reform,’’ one longtime Beacon Hill insider said yesterday. “Not just moving this from one branch to the other, but how it’s funded, closing courthouses, and a lot of other issues. The sad thing is, that will pit the court system against the Legislature.’’

Whether laws were broken is a question that won’t be answered for some time. Certainly, people should not be glib, as some insiders have been, about suggesting that they haven’t. Taking campaign donations on public property, as may have happened, is illegal. Pressuring subordinates to contribute to the campaigns of cronies, as O’Brien may have done, is also questionable. Several agencies, beginning with the attorney general’s office and the US attorney’s office, will be busy sorting out other legal questions.

But their efforts may not do much to solve the Charlie Murphy problem. The Probation Department has been a sordid, corrupt mess for years, and plenty of people knew it. But God forbid we rush to judgment, Murphy warns us. After all, the system works just fine for some people, people he knows very well.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at