The speaker’s words — and his ways

DeLeo vows to battle patronage, but he sponsored many for probation jobs

By Andrea Estes and Scott Allen
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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Marisa Cogliandro-Vaughan had few qualifications to become assistant chief probation officer at Malden District Court in 2005. Not only was she inexperienced, she was also untrained.

Unlike almost every other probation officer, the four-year veteran had never attended a mandatory two-week training program or even obtained an employee manual.

But Cogliandro-Vaughan had a powerful sponsor: state Representative Robert A. DeLeo. She boasted to colleagues that the future speaker of the House, then chairman of the committee that writes the budget for Probation and other departments, was helping her. Probation records show that he recommended her for promotion to his friend, Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien.

When Cogliandro-Vaughan got the job, “it was the sickest day in my life,’’ recalled one 20-year Probation veteran who also applied for the position and asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation. Another senior probation officer successfully challenged the promotion on the grounds that Cogliandro-Vaughan was unqualified, forcing department officials to provide one-on-one training to bring the young woman up to speed.

Now, after a devastating independent counsel’s report that portrays the Probation Department as a bastion of politically wired hiring and promotions, the speaker has emerged as an antipatronage reformer. He already has dropped one member of his leadership team because of his connection to the probation scandal. And DeLeo insists that he will lead efforts to restore fairness and transparency in hiring not only at Probation, but throughout state government. “We will make clear that all public servants must not only be qualified for their jobs; they must be the most qualified people for their jobs,’’ DeLeo said this month in his speech to the House after being elected to a second term as speaker. He has promised to file reform legislation within weeks.

But DeLeo is an unlikely antipatronage crusader.

Cogliandro-Vaughan is one of at least 12 job candidates DeLeo’s office recommended to O’Brien between 2004 and 2007, according to Probation Department records, including seven campaign contributors and DeLeo’s godson, now the state’s youngest chief probation officer. A Spotlight Team review found that seven other major DeLeo campaign donors have been hired or promoted in the Probation Department since 2005, though there is no record that DeLeo actively promoted them.

And DeLeo showed no appetite for reform as recently as Nov. 1, when he testified that he had done “nothing’’ to investigate whether legislators violated ethical standards in the five months since O’Brien was suspended amid allegations that he systematically hired politically connected job candidates even when they were unqualified. DeLeo recalled only one brief conversation with his then-deputy, State Representative Thomas M. Petrolati, regarding revelations that more than 100 of Petrolati’s campaign contributors work at Probation.

“I didn’t look at it so much as an ethical issue,’’ DeLeo told independent counsel Paul F. Ware Jr., according to a transcript obtained by the Spotlight Team.

“What I looked at it was an issue wherein a representative, again in terms of trying to help a constituent, you know, made a recommendation for a job . . . I’m not sure if that falls under any of our ethical rules as being not proper.’’

In the same interview, DeLeo said he considered O’Brien a friend, though they did not socialize, and that he enjoyed bantering with him about football at Boston College, where O’Brien played in the late 1970s.

The political landscape changed dramatically with the Nov. 18 release of Ware’s report, which accused O’Brien and his top deputies of “pervasive fraud’’ by running a rigged hiring and promotion system. The report found that top legislators, including DeLeo, frequently recommended job candidates to O’Brien. State and federal prosecutors have launched criminal probes looking, in part, at whether politicians abused their power in placing friends, family, and supporters in Probation jobs.

For days, DeLeo said little publicly about the report, even though it mentions him by name 41 times, leaving it to others to defend the Legislature. Ware initially said that he did not “believe Speaker DeLeo did anything inappropriate,’’ but he also said that his main focus had been the conduct of Probation employees, leaving the investigation of politicians to others.

Finally, on Nov. 23, DeLeo issued a statement declaring that the Ware report’s conclusions “are severe, significant and disturbing. It is clear the Probation Department cries out for reform and, as the speaker of the House, I intend to lead these reform efforts.’’

He also announced that Petrolati, whom some colleagues have nicknamed the “king of patronage’’ for his ability to help allies win court jobs in Western Massachusetts, would step down as Speaker Pro Tempore, the number three leadership position in the House. Two weeks later, DeLeo hired crisis communications consultant Karen Schwartzman, who helped craft DeLeo’s Jan. 5 speech when he was reelected speaker, including the language about eliminating political favoritism in government.

“I want to emphasize that this session we will also do our part to ensure that all state agencies operate transparently and with the highest professional standards,’’ DeLeo told House members.

DeLeo, a lawyer and former Winthrop selectman, gave few indications that eliminating politically motivated hiring was a “top priority’’ before his Nov. 23 response to the Ware report. In fact, he has been helping family members obtain government jobs at least since the mid-1990s, when Secretary of State William Galvin hired his sister Carol as a favor to the legislator, according to an official who worked there at the time. She now works in the state auditor’s office.

In recent years, friends say he has told them that he helped his longtime girlfriend, Vicki A. Mucci, get her job as a secretary at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. An agency spokeswoman said Mucci was the most qualified candidate and that the agency has no record that DeLeo intervened.

An administration official said DeLeo’s office helped his cousin, Ralph DeLeo, obtain a job at the state Executive Office of Administration and Finance in 2008, shortly after Ralph DeLeo and his father each contributed $500 to DeLeo’s campaign.

DeLeo declined to be interviewed for this story. But through his spokesman, Seth Gitell, the speaker said he would not discuss specifics regarding his efforts to help family members obtain jobs. Mucci and Ralph DeLeo did not return calls for comment.

At the Probation Department, at least 15 people who were either recommended by DeLeo’s office or donated at least $850 to his campaign have been hired or promoted at Probation since 2005, a Spotlight Team review found.

DeLeo’s office has been unable to estimate how many people the speaker has recommended for jobs since the recommendations were often done verbally by the speaker’s staff. However, DeLeo has said that he doesn’t base recommendations on personal connections.

He told Ware that he sponsored one major donor in part because he was very active in Revere youth soccer. DeLeo also testified that he simply made recommendations, leaving it to the Probation Department to make personnel decisions.

From the moment DeLeo was named Ways and Means Committee Chairman in January 2005, he had considerable sway over Probation’s budget, giving Commissioner O’Brien a powerful incentive to try to please him. DeLeo testified to Ware that, during budget season, state officials beat a path to his door to plead for their agency’s budget:

“Anyone who has anything to do with the budget — whether it’s the commissioner, whether it’s a secretary — they’d be fool-hearted to present a budget and not make their case to the chair of Ways and Means,’’ DeLeo said in his testimony before Ware.

O’Brien, who met with DeLeo or his staff several times a year, according to DeLeo’s statements to Ware, was particularly successful in convincing the Legislature that his department needed more money.

From 2005 to 2009, DeLeo’s committee consistently gave the Probation Department more funding than the Administrative Office of the Trial Court requested, Ware found, a total of $25 million in extra funding over the four years.

In 2008, the extra money fueled the hiring of 60 new probation officers, including the daughter of a leading DeLeo campaign donor as well as people connected to DeLeo’s legislative allies.

In his testimony to Ware, DeLeo said he did not recall approving the extra funding, and he had no specific explanation for why his committee approved additional money above what the court system requested. “Budgetary matters are very fluid,’’ he said, noting that commissioners frequently want more money than their superiors request.

DeLeo spokesman Gitell emphasized that, during the four years DeLeo chaired Ways and Means, Probation’s overall budget grew more slowly than the state budget as a whole.

DeLeo has said that the 337-page Ware report itself changed his mind about the state of the Probation Department, which he defended earlier last year as a “functional organization.’’ In a Dec. 1 radio interview, DeLeo said he felt “great anger’’ as he read Ware’s report and learned how political the hiring process had become at the agency.

“There seemed to be almost a situation where some folks, whether they were making donations to various candidates may have been getting jobs there,’’ he explained to WBZ radio host Dan Rea, a friend of DeLeo’s since they were teammates at Boston Latin School. “It’s my responsibility to try to bring the brightest and the best into the fold in the Commonwealth. . . . I’m concerned that that sort of mantra wasn’t honored’’ in the Probation Department.

However, there were questions about the qualifications of at least one of DeLeo’s own recommendations for Probation, Cogliandro-Vaughan, who had not undergone the basic training taken by all 39 other job applicants, according to a grievance brought by probation officer Arthur Robbins.

Arbitrator Parker Denaco ordered the Probation Department either to train Cogliandro-Vaughan properly or re-open the search for assistant chief probation officer after learning that she had never taken a legally required two-week training course for probation officers.

The speaker, responding to written questions from the Spotlight Team, said he did not recall aiding Cogliandro-Vaughan, though he may have. He said through a spokesman that Cogliandro-Vaughan was merely a former resident of his district and “if she received a recommendation, and if that recommendation allowed someone who was less qualified to skip over a candidate who was more qualified, that was certainly not his intent.’’

But Cogliandro-Vaughan suggested to co-workers in 2005 that she had a closer relationship with DeLeo, once referring to him as her godfather in conversation with a colleague, though there is no evidence that that is literally the case. Cogliandro-Vaughan didn’t return calls from the Spotlight Team, but one co-worker said Cogliandro-Vaughan was open about getting help from DeLeo, the only state politician she has donated to since 2002.

“She said you know people, and you do what you have to do,’’ said this Probation employee. “It was well known . . . you’re promoted based on who you know, not what you do.’’

DeLeo faced no opposition in his bid for a second term as speaker this month, and members did not openly question his plan to end patronage in Massachusetts government. But one ex-legislator who lost his reelection bid in November said many of his former colleagues are puzzled by DeLeo’s new emphasis on reforming Probation.

“It certainly has raised eyebrows,’’ said former Representative Matt Patrick, a Falmouth Democrat. “He’s claiming he didn’t know what was up [at the Probation Department]. It just raises questions: How is that possible?’’

The Globe Spotlight Team would like to hear from readers with tips about the state’s Probation Department. The telephone number is 617-929-3208. Confidential messages can also be left at 617-929-7483. The e-mail address is