Spotlight Follow-up

Grand jury takes up probation charges

State panel weighs rigged hiring claims

By Thomas Farragher and Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / February 5, 2011

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A Massachusetts grand jury is hearing testimony about allegedly rigged hiring and promotion practices at the state Probation Department, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the criminal inquiry.

Officials from the central administrative office of the probation agency, as well as current and former probation officers, have been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury convened by state Attorney General Martha Coakley, the sources said.

While it is unclear what precise charges the grand jury is considering, state prosecutors are believed to be following a legal road map sketched by an unusually detailed — and damning — report late last year by a special counsel appointed by the state Supreme Judicial Court.

That report, by counsel Paul F. Ware Jr., suggested potential violations of state law, including bribery, conspiracy, conflict of interest, and illegal solicitation of campaign funds.

The work of the state grand jury is underway as a federal grand jury is collecting evidence and considering charges that include fraud and extortion.

The twin criminal probes were triggered after the SJC strongly embraced Ware’s conclusion that the Probation Department had been corrupted by systemic fraud in which politically wired job candidates were routinely hired over those with more meritorious qualifications.

The scandal already has resulted in the departure of the agency’s senior leadership.

John J. O’Brien, the longtime probation chief, abruptly resigned on New Year’s Eve, just days before a disciplinary hearing that likely would have resulted in his dismissal. Two of O’Brien’s chief lieutenants quit in recent weeks just before they were to face discipline proceedings. Other top officials await discipline that could range from dismissals to suspensions.

The state grand jury, the sources said, is working at an accelerated pace in part because a six-year statute of limitations for some of the alleged violations will expire shortly. Unlike many grand juries that hear evidence at state courthouses, the grand jurors in the probation probe are convening in an out-of-the-way state office hearing room near Government Center.

When Ware’s report was released in mid-November, legal specialists called it an unusually detailed blueprint for prosecutors seeking to bring criminal complaints.

For example, Ware said that O’Brien could have violated the state bribery statute by offering a “thing of value’’ — jobs to state legislators’ friends and supporters — in exchange for “official acts’’ such as budget appropriations. Or he could have asked for the funding, a “thing of value,’’ in exchange for his own “official acts,’’ hiring connected individuals.

One regional supervisor told Ware that O’Brien became “physically upset’’ when she rejected the son of former state senator William “Biff’’ MacLean for a probation job because the younger MacLean was a convicted felon. O’Brien originally opposed hiring Doug MacLean, too, but he told MacLean’s supervisor that he was getting pressure from the Legislature to relent.

Ware described a litany of examples of probation officials violating campaign finance laws, writing that “the evidence collected unambiguously points to repeated violations of the law’’ by O’Brien, Deputy Commissioner Francis M. Wall — who resigned last month — and others.

State employees are not allowed to solicit campaign donations, and no one is allowed to solicit donations in a state building. A conviction for doing either one is punishable by a prison sentence of up to a year and a fine of up to $1,000.

Those laws are designed to protect public employees from being coerced into supporting politicians, and to avoid the appearance — or reality — that a job or promotion is contingent on political support, Ware noted.

In July 2005, either O’Brien or his legislative liaison acting on O’Brien’s behalf solicited donations for Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill in the cafeteria of the Beacon Hill state office building where probation is headquartered, Ware found. In a single day, 34 Probation Department employees donated a total of $4,000 to Cahill. The vast majority of them had never before donated to Cahill.

Shortly after the fund-raiser, O’Brien’s wife, Laurie, was hired for a job at the treasury, a customer service position much more desirable than the night-shift computer operator post for which she was initially considered. Ware called O’Brien’s conduct an abuse of his “authority within the Department for personal gain.’’

The probation agency’s legislative liaison, Edward Ryan, denied to Ware that he solicited donations for Cahill but admitted “talking up’’ Cahill’s fund-raisers.

Witnesses also described O’Brien and Wall soliciting contributions for state Representative Thomas M. Petrolati in the state office building cafeteria.

Ware did not find evidence of specific legislators seeking donations in exchange for supporting a job candidate, but he described statistical evidence of a widespread “pay to play’’ system. Job candidates who donated to their sponsor were far more likely to be hired than sponsored candidates who did not donate.

O’Brien “went to extraordinary lengths to placate ‘important’ politicians by ensuring the success of their preferred candidates,’’ Ware wrote.

When Joseph W. Dooley was seeking a promotion to a first assistant chief probation officer position in March 2005, Dooley’s friend, Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, assured him that he had nothing to worry about. Pacheco relayed what O’Brien had told the senator.

“If I did not receive the position, the commissioner would freeze the position,’’ Dooley recalled Pacheco telling him.

Dooley, now a chief probation officer, also told Ware that Pacheco bluntly asked him to raise funds for the senator from among his probation colleagues.

Pacheco denied to Ware that he asked Dooley to raise money from probation employees, and also denied that O’Brien assured him a job would go to Dooley or no one. But Ware found Dooley the credible witness.

Dooley said yesterday that he had not testified before a grand jury, but would not say whether he had been subpoenaed. Pacheco did not respond to a request for comment.

Pacheco, a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee that holds sway over probation’s budget, was one of the 10 sponsors of probation candidates who showed up most frequently in probation records reviewed by the independent counsel. He’s also among the 20 top recipients of campaign donations from probation staff since 2000, according to Ware.

The statute of limitations on state campaign finance offenses is six years, so the statute would run out this year on both the Cahill fund-raising matter and any potential wrongdoing associated with Dooley’s promotion.

When she announced in November that she was assigning a team of prosecutors to pursue charges in the probation scandal, Coakley said Ware’s report “outlines a troubling and extensive scheme which lessened public confidence in the process of selecting probation officers and compromised public safety.’’