Resistance, resolve in report’s wake

Current, former employees now coming forward to detail egregious examples of fraud, favoritism

By Thomas Farragher and Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / November 20, 2010

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It was a little thing, but it nagged at him. Why the pencil?

Jack Alicandro, who for years was the chief of the union representing state probation officers, wondered why all the promotion evaluations by deputies of Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien were being done in lead, not ink. He said he once raised it directly with O’Brien’s top lieutenant, Elizabeth V. Tavares.

“Instead of pencil, do it in ink,’’ Alicandro said he told Tavares. “Why don’t we go one step further and tape it?’’

Alicandro said Tavares fixed him with an icy stare and replied: “You know that would totally offend the commissioner.’’

That how-dare-you tone, the stern voice of the Massachusetts Probation Department under O’Brien, is echoed on page after page of this week’s special counsel report detailing massive fraud that is likely to lead to O’Brien’s dismissal and may result in criminal charges against him and his chief aides, including Tavares.

Independent Counsel Paul F. Ware Jr.’s conclusion that the “fraud begins’’ with O’Brien was rendered more quaintly within the halls of the probation agency’s offices on Beacon Hill: Jack wants it this way. Jack won’t like that. Jack says to give this guy a special look.

And with Jack O’Brien now gone, many of those still on duty are left to wonder why they let his dictatorial style obscure their judgment and how the agency still marbled with those hired based on connections, not merit, can rebuild itself from the wreckage wrought by O’Brien’s tenure.

“It took some time for the culture that was exposed by this investigation to become normal, and it will take some time for a new culture to develop,’’ said John Larivee, chief executive of Community Resources for Justice, a Boston-based nonprofit. “There was a large segment of people who knew this wasn’t right and fell into it more out of fear.’’

Indeed, Ware’s report revealed that shame and fear ate away at the Probation Department officials who knew better than to wink at rigged hiring and phony promotion practices as if they were standard business practice. Even some of those who suffered retaliation for trying to uphold ethical standards nevertheless helped carry out some fraudulent hiring.

Ellen Slaney and Edward Dalton were assigned to conduct audits far from their homes — on a schedule that appeared to be designed to cause maximum inconvenience — for failing to sufficiently falsify their scoring while interviewing job candidates, Ware found.

For example, Slaney refused to rubber-stamp Douglas MacLean, a convicted felon who was hired because his father was a retired state senator. She told O’Brien, “I thought that having the names ahead of time was unethical, and I felt that it was cheating and that I couldn’t do that.’’

Yet Slaney later gave in, convincing herself that her only role on hiring panels was to represent O’Brien’s interests. “That’s how I tried to swallow it,’’ she said.

Dalton, who recently retired, became emotional during his testimony when he recalled being asked to blackball two candidates who had filed union grievances.

He said that he and Slaney would sometimes commiserate about their “predicament.’’

“Sort of like survival,’’ said Dalton.

As news of Ware’s damning report ricocheted across the state Thursday from courthouse to courthouse, probation officers calculated what O’Brien’s apparently imminent dismissal and the suspension of his senior lieutenants would mean for their careers. Their conclusions hinged on whether they had been friend or foe of O’Brien.

Dianne Boland, probation officer in charge of the Community Corrections Center in Northampton, said she is one of many who will be looking for professional rebirth, a promotion or job change.

“Even if I don’t move on, I feel better,’’ said Boland, who has argued for years that troubled offenders were not being well served by probation. “I feel like I won’t have to watch what I say and be dismissed and socially isolated.’’

The new day in probation comes too late for others who gave up on the probation agency, retiring early or starting over in new professions after years feeling being trapped in a dysfunctional system. After 15 years as a probation officer, Miriam Gallardo took a voluntary layoff offer in August.

“I feel bad; I left a lot of people who needed help, but I had to save myself,’’ Gallardo said yesterday. She could no longer tolerate “all the falsehoods and the cold shoulder and the corruption and working like crazy while [other probation officers] are drifting in and out like it’s a vacation.’’

Gallardo, a social worker who is bilingual, said she was passed over for promotion a dozen times. When she arrived for one interview years ago, she says, a man waiting alongside bluntly told her: “I already got the job.’’

The 53-year-old is now studying to be a radiology technician.

While those stymied by O’Brien’s autocratic leadership style may now have a chance to flourish, they almost certainly have to continue to work alongside those who found their way onto the probation payroll because of their connections.

“The evidence demonstrated that fraudulent hiring has been occurring since Commissioner O’Brien arrived in the late 1990s,’’ Ware wrote in his report. “At this point, many individuals who may have been hired have been in their posts for up to a decade or more. Whatever the circumstances of their having obtained these positions, it is unclear that disruption of their employment [in] the Probation Department would be in the public interest.’’

That means that a former associate probation officer in Worcester Superior Court who police say may have compromised an investigation by leaking information to criminals will probably keep her job. Worcester police said Ashley Losapio admitted to them that she was hanging around with “bad guys,’’ had the telephone numbers of criminal suspects programmed into her cellphone, and acknowledged that she would talk to those suspects about whom she saw in court.

Losapio, the stepdaughter of a judge, should have been fired, Ware concluded in his report. Her punishment under O’Brien? He transferred her to Westborough District Court and gave her a pay raise.

“It is inconceivable that a responsible private sector company would continue the employment of an employee who knowingly used company computers to assist her criminal friends,’’ Ware said. “It must therefore be even more unreasonable for an employee of a public safety and law enforcement agency to remain employed under such circumstance, particularly when there is no indication that she has terminated her affiliation with a known criminal element.’’

Robert F. Kumor Jr. retired last year as first justice of the Springfield District Court and filed a lawsuit challenging the Legislature’s move in 2001 to wrest control of the selection process for probation officers from judges and to give nearly sole authority to O’Brien.

Kumor said a reborn probation agency must learn an important lesson from O’Brien’s tenure.

“You’ve got to remember who you work for,’’ said Kumor. “And if it’s an institution of state government, you work for the people of the Commonwealth. You don’t work for your immediate boss.’’

Alicandro, who retired last year as president of Local 229 of the National Association of Government Employees, said he, too, would like that new ethos to take hold.

He said he took some small measure of vindication from a conclusion in Ware’s report that found his nagging suspicion about those pencils had been prescient.

“During our review of selected final-round scoring sheets, it appears in some instances that scores have been falsified,’’ Ware wrote in his report. “It is possible to see a score that was either erased or written over.’’

The former union chief said that when he learned of that detail in Ware’s report, he recalled Tavares’s indignant reaction.

“It’s finally caught up with them,’’ Alicandro said. “They had a system, and it was rigged in their favor and it was too bad for everybody else. How insulting it was that they could look you in the eye and say, ‘This is above board,’ and expect us to believe it.’’

Farragher can be reached at; Bombardieri at