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DeLeo to oust a top lieutenant

House speaker has been fuming over perceived betrayal

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo postponed making changes to his leadership team while the casino debate was going on. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo postponed making changes to his leadership team while the casino debate was going on. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)
By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / November 20, 2011

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House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, fuming over what he sees as an act of political betrayal, is preparing to oust one of his top lieutenants, accusing assistant majority leader Charles A. Murphy of undermining his leadership in an effort to launch his own bid to take over the speaker’s office.

According to senior legislative sources, DeLeo’s power play comes after months of seething over reports that Murphy, the House’s third in command, has been telling some members that an ongoing federal investigation into the state’s troubled Probation Department could topple the speaker and other top legislative leaders.

When it does, Murphy told them, he would be ready to take over the reins.

The probe focuses on the Probation Department’s practice of giving patronage jobs to lawmakers’ friends and associates in return for increases to the department’s budget.

There is no evidence to suggest that DeLeo is a target of any investigation.

Murphy, a Burlington Democrat, insists he has done nothing disloyal. But his exile was sealed Wednesday night when, without any notice to the speaker, he pushed a floor amendment that would have gutted a controversial criminal justice bill that DeLeo was pressing the rank and file to pass. The two ended up in an angry verbal exchange.

Exactly when DeLeo will defrock Murphy and who will replace him is not clear. House rules require him to present any reorganization of his leadership team - in this case, the removal of the assistant majority leader and the appointment of a new one - to the Democratic caucus for its approval.

DeLeo and his advisers had given serious consideration to making the move last week, as the Legislature wrapped up its 2011 session, but decided against taking such a dramatic step in the middle of controversial debates including whether to legalize casino gambling.

With the House now adjourned for the year, one option is for DeLeo to call Democrats back to the State House for a special caucus - a highly unusual move. Since a rule requiring caucus approval for leadership changes was adopted nearly three decades ago, no speaker has sought the OK to fire a top lieutenant in the middle of a two-year legislative session.

This is not the first time DeLeo and Murphy have clashed. In January, the speaker removed Murphy as chairman of the House Ways and Means committee - a powerful perch that has often been used to win the speaker’s post. Sources close to DeLeo said Murphy had angered the speaker because he had not followed through on, or even paid attention to, some of the leadership’s major priorities.

But because Murphy had some influential allies, DeLeo decided not to banish him to an obscure committee and instead gave him the post of assistant majority leader.

But Murphy, an Marine veteran who has run into political problems at the State House with his hard charging style, again raised the speaker’s ire several months ago when he began what DeLeo felt was a campaign to undercut him by connecting leadership to the Probation probe. The speaker called Murphy on the carpet and demanded he stop. But as the months went on, DeLeo and his advisers became convinced that Murphy continued.

Then, last Wednesday, as the speaker prepared to put the habitual offender bill to a vote, he called his top leadership team into his office to discuss the final push to pass the legislation and review the 21 floor amendments that were pending, according to someone in the House leadership.

That was when he learned of Murphy’s amendment, which eliminated a critical element of the bill.

With others on his team looking on, DeLeo, taken aback, dressed down Murphy for his lack of protocol, reminding him he was part of his leadership and needed to toe the line and not undercut its agenda, according to the person. The speaker then abruptly cleared the room. But Murphy lingered as others left. He and DeLeo could be heard exchanging angry words, according to people who were present.

Murphy, who has made no secret that he aspires to be the House speaker someday, acknowledged that he and DeLeo talked about his amendment, but said he would not comment any further, saying the discussion was private. DeLeo’s press aide also said the speaker would not comment.

The news of the confrontation swept through the House chamber, where the lawmakers were rushing to meet the midnight deadline marking the end of the 2011 session. The incident only confirmed what many of the state legislators already knew: namely that DeLeo was at wits end with his assistant majority leader.

Murphy is adamant that he has been loyal. He acknowledged he has talked to other members about “the future,’’ but has never asked any of his colleagues for a commitment to back him if there is a vacancy in the speaker’s office. He also insists he has never implied the federal probation investigation could bring down anyone in the House leadership.

“We talk about all sorts of things . . . no one knows what’s happening,’’ he said. “I hear the same rumors everyone else does. I’m reading the papers. . . . I haven’t the foggiest idea what is going on.’’

Murphy also noted that Paul F. Ware Jr., the special counsel to the Supreme Judicial Court who was hired to investigate the Globe Spotlight Team series on the Probation Department, “specifically stated’’ that DeLeo did nothing wrong.

Ware’s report, released late last year, criticized DeLeo and his colleagues for providing the agency with funds to hire politically connected candidates. He also said that he believed DeLeo, who sponsored at least 12 candidates for probation jobs, did not do anything “inappropriate.’’

DeLeo has already shaken up his leadership once since taking over the speaker’s office in 2009.

Some of his friends in the House say that Murphy’s failure to work as a team with DeLeo during that period reflects his lack of skills needed to work at the highest levels of Beacon Hill politics.

Murphy is not the only member of DeLeo’s leadership team he has sparred with. In January, when he removed Murphy as Ways and Means chair, DeLeo also dumped his then-majority leader, Representative James E. Vallee of Franklin, shipping him off to chair a backwater, the Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs. DeLeo felt Vallee was quietly campaigning to round up votes to succeed him.

Frank Phillips can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFPhillips.