Coakley launches inquiry on probation

AG seeks charges, to protect evidence

By Thomas Farragher
Globe Staff / November 27, 2010

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Attorney General Martha Coakley said yesterday that she has opened a criminal investigation into rigged hiring and bogus promotion practices at the state Probation Department, assigning a team of prosecutors to “aggressively pursue’’ charges and protect evidence from being destroyed.

Coakley’s action comes a week after the state Supreme Judicial Court firmly backed independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr.’s scathing report that found the probation agency is riddled with fraud and “systemic corruption’’ and asked federal, state, and local prosecutors to weigh criminal charges.

“Our office has already begun an investigation to determine the scope of the violation of state law,’’ Coakley said yesterday in a letter that responded to one from Republican state lawmakers earlier this week.

“We are thoroughly reviewing documents contained in Mr. Ware’s report. We have taken steps to ensure that evidence is preserved.’’

Coakley said she has also contacted US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz — who is ex amining whether federal law has been violated — about the scope of alleged lawbreaking in the probation agency. Ware’s report cites potential crimes, including wire and mail fraud, bribery, conspiracy, perjury, conflict of interest, and illegal solicitation of campaign funds.

Ortiz could not be reached for comment yesterday, but last week she said she had begun a thorough review of Ware’s report to determine what action her office might take. Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, whom Ware suggested should examine campaign finance violations, has said he, too, is considering next steps.

Ware found that now-suspended Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien and his senior lieutenants oversaw a hiring system that was rigged “on a grand scale,’’ conducting thousands of fake job interviews when the positions had been set aside for politically connected candidates.

Coakley told the GOP lawmakers that the report “outlines a troubling and extensive scheme which lessened public confidence in the process of selecting probation officers and compromised public safety.’’

The attorney general declined the Globe’s request for an interview. Her spokesman said he could not answer questions about what kind of resources Coakley will devote to her inquiry or what steps would be taken to preserve evidence.

“My office is tasking a team of prosecutors and investigators who will aggressively pursue this matter,’’ Coakley’s letter said.

Ware found that O’Brien had vastly politicized his 2,000-employee department, doling out jobs to candidates backed by state legislators while illegally pressing workers to donate to campaigns of key department allies, including state Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, a Ludlow Democrat.

The independent counsel cited six possible criminal targets: O’Brien and his chief deputies, Elizabeth V. Tavares, Francis M. Wall, Patricia A. Walsh, William H. Burke III — all implicated in the bogus hiring — and Christopher J. Bulger, the department’s legal counsel.

O’Brien, and seven of his employees, declined to answer Ware’s questions, citing their constitutional right against self-incrimination. O’Brien would not even confirm that he had obeyed an SJC order against destroying any evidence, and, Ware said, it is possible that “documents O’Brien considered damaging were withheld and/or destroyed.’’

In their letter to Coakley, Republican lawmakers called on her to undertake a swift and thorough investigation “to ensure that justice is brought to bear on individuals who violated the laws of the Commonwealth or the United States.’’

And yesterday they applauded her swift reply. “We need to determine who is culpable and they need to be prosecuted appropriately,’’ said Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican and the state Senate minority leader. “I’m not sure we understand the entire scope of this problem.’’

State Senator Robert L. Hedlund, Republican of Hingham, said Coakley and other investigators should not have needed the Globe Spotlight Team, which has reported on widespread hiring abuses in a series of stories beginning in May, to uncover systemic hiring abuses in the Probation Department. And he called on the Legislature to open internal reviews.

“This is just a complete violation of the public trust and abuse of the public payroll,’’ Hedlund said. “We in the Senate should be policing ourselves.’’

Coakley’s announcement yesterday comes just three days after House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo announced that Petrolati, whom some colleagues have dubbed “the king of patronage’’ in Western Massachusetts, would not be reappointed to his number three position in the House, as speaker pro tem.

In a prepared statement last evening, DeLeo said the Probation Department “cries out for change,’’ and he vowed to assist Coakley’s investigation.

“We will act to restore the public’s faith in the Probation Department with the same urgency we reformed a decades old and broken transportation system, the same way we enacted the most sweeping changes to our ethics and campaign finance laws of our era, and the same way we eliminated entrenched abuses in the state pension system,’’ DeLeo said.

According to Ware’s report, DeLeo was not unfamiliar with probation’s patronage tradition.

Ware documented at least seven cases in which DeLeo helped candidates win jobs or promotions at the agency. One of them was the speaker’s godson, Brian Mirasolo, who at 28 is one of the youngest chief probation officers in the state.

A spokesman for DeLeo confirmed earlier this week that DeLeo wrote a letter of recommendation for Mirasolo because the speaker believed he was highly qualified for the job. That sponsorship may have violated the state’s conflict-of-interest law.

While DeLeo is now vowing to overhaul the agency, in private testimony before Ware on Nov. 1, the speaker spoke with decidedly less urgency about the hiring patterns for probation officers.

“I look at it as my role as a legislator to be of any assistance that I can with my constituency, whether it’s a recommendation to — for a job, whatever it’s to give whatever assistance I have because they’re down and out with housing or they’re trying to go through a state agency to get some help,’’ DeLeo testified.

“That’s my job as a legislator. I mean, it’s to recommend people.’’

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