House approves probation overhaul

Votes to keep agency under court control

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 12, 2011

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The Massachusetts House unanimously passed a bill yesterday intended to eliminate patronage in the state Probation Department, but rejected Governor Deval Patrick’s demand that he be given control of the troubled agency.

The measure, which would allow state judges to retain control of the Probation Department, passed by a veto-proof 152-0 margin, giving the Legislature a huge boost in its power struggle with the governor over how best to repair the department.

Senate President Therese Murray has previously expressed support for much of the House plan and, through a spokesman, reiterated her promise yesterday that her chamber will take up the matter next week, before debating the budget.

The Senate chairwoman of the Joint Judiciary Committee, Cynthia Stone Creem, said that she expects bipartisan support in her chamber for most of the key provisions of the House bill, including who controls the Probation Department, though she expects to tweak other aspects.

“There hasn’t been a case made at this point as to why it should leave the judiciary,’’ Creem said yesterday.

For the bill to reach a veto-proof majority in the Senate, two thirds of lawmakers in that chamber must support the measure.

Yesterday’s vote came at a critical time for the House, allowing lawmakers to point to an ethics reform as they face continued embarrassments from the ongoing trial of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi on corruption charges. That case is unrelated to the Probation Department, which is the target of state and federal investigations related to widespread hiring abuses.

Powerful Democratic House members, including House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, were cited in a Globe Spotlight report and an independent investigation that found widespread patronage in the department. The agency had employed at least 250 friends, relatives, and financial backers of politicians and top court officials.

In November, Thomas M. Petrolati, the third-ranking Democratic leader in the House, agreed to leave his leadership post under pressure after it was disclosed that more than 100 of his financial backers hold jobs in the department.

DeLeo, whose godson was hired in the department, has been especially aggressive this year in pushing lawmakers to take steps to repair their image and to confront entrenched Beacon Hill interests, including public employee unions.

“The speaker made it very clear that he wanted swift action,’’ Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Democrat and House chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee, said from the House floor yesterday. “The speaker wanted to make sure, as I indicated, that this process be open, transparent, and clear.’’

Under DeLeo’s bill, probation job candidates would be subject to several layers of screening, including an objective test intended to rank candidates without bias.

Not all new rules in DeLeo’s bill are directed specifically at probation. The bill also requires that all recommendations for state government and court jobs be put in writing and made public for successful candidates, whether they come from lawmakers or others. It also mandates that those letters be considered only after candidates are vetted and reach the final stage in the hiring process, which DeLeo has said will curtail political pressure to hire incompetent employees.

“This major reform legislation will improve upon an already strong court system,’’ DeLeo said in a statement. “By passing this reorganization bill, the House has committed to bring a more transparent, efficient system of justice to the people of Massachusetts.’’

Fellow legislators, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and judges, including Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland, agree with the speaker that the department is on the road to reform and can be fixed without turning over power to the governor.

The DeLeo plan further creates a professional manager, who would report to the SJC, to supervise non-court functions, such as reviewing and approving the hiring of nonjudicial employees, overseeing appropriations and expenditures, and negotiating contracts and leases.

The chief justice of the Trial Court would oversee planning, policy, assigning judges, judicial discipline, and other judicial functions.

Patrick has also proposed putting a professional manager in charge of probation. But he has argued that it makes sense to put the department under his authority because he already controls the Parole Board, which has overlapping responsibilities. His administration has also argued that the executive branch is more accountable than the judicial branch, in which judges are appointed, not elected, and generally not subject to open records laws.

Patrick’s spokesman, Alex Goldstein, issued a statement yesterday praising the House for its attention to the issue, but continued to fight for control over the agency.

“It has been Governor Patrick’s goal since first filing legislation in 2010 to restore the public’s confidence in the Probation Department and to make it more accountable, and overall the house proposal reflects that they share those goals,’’ Goldstein said.

“The governor continues to believe that bringing probation under the direct oversight of the Executive Office in the form of an effective and accountable reentry program . . . is the best way to hold the department accountable.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at