A Long Nightmare in Probation

The report of the Supreme Judicial Court’s independent counsel, Paul Ware, on hiring in the probation department is a deeply disturbing read. It can be viewed at mass.gov/sjc.

The report evidences need for both immediate personnel changes and further investigations, both in probation and in the legislature. We also have to consider how to respond to the issue of legislative patronage more generally.

The report chronicles a long nightmare for upright probation employees. For a decade or more, the head of probation, Jack O’Brien, and the people around him systematically falsified personnel records to assure the hiring and/or promotion of politically favored candidates. Ostensibly, the personnel process was merit-based and included a number of peer interviews. So, to advance his preferred candidates, O’Brien and his top deputies forced mid-level managers, under explicit threat of retaliation, to distort their interview rankings of candidates.

In the testimony reproduced in the report, one can hear the anguish of mid-level managers who sacrificed their integrity to preserve their careers. The damage to the morale and professionalism of an essential state agency cannot be overstated.

In the late 90s, I was an Assistant Attorney General under Scott Harshbarger. I participated in the policy conversations that were then ongoing about how to respond to drug problems and high incarceration rates. There was a strong progressive consensus supporting expansion of probation and community corrections as part of the solution. At that point, Jack O’Brien was leading a new community corrections program and I perceived that he genuinely felt that he had an important mission.

While in the report, O’Brien appears mostly as a corrupt dictator, the report also reveals flashes of integrity, for example where he initially refuses to hire a convicted felon despite the felon being the son of a state senator — before yielding to overwhelming pressure from an unnamed legislator.

Clearly, at some point, O’Brien completely lost his way. For that, your legislature has to take substantial responsibility. It is clear from the report that some state representatives and senators at the leadership level leaned on O’Brien hard, perhaps explicitly trading support for the probation department budget for opportunities to place friends and family in probation jobs. .

The report offers strongly suggestive evidence that, in some instances, legislators solicited campaign contributions from probation officers in return for help. These instances deserve further attention from prosecutors. But, in some instances, legislators may have simply attempted to serve constituents.

That’s the deep problem — it is, in fact, an important role of legislators to help their constituents fight through state and private bureaucracy to obtain fair treatment — sidewalk repairs, storm drain clean up, health care benefits, housing, employment. Sometimes there is a very thin line between fair treatment and unwarranted privilege. In the case of the probation department, it is clear that line was crossed routinely.

While, the systematic fraud that occurred in probation is probably unusual, inappropriate patronage is undoubtedly more widespread. The question of how we set appropriate boundaries for legislative contacts with agencies deserves sustained attention. I would support, for example, a house rule that all legislative contacts with agencies regarding employment be in writing and filed with the House or Senate Clerk.

It may take several weeks for consensus to emerge in the legislature on a full response to this report, but the issue should remain on the front burner — how we handle the issue will send an important signal about our true level of commitment to restoring confidence in government.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.