By Gintautas Dumcius, Andy Metzger and Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — News of a jury convicting three former Probation Department officials on charges of conspiracy to commit racketeering caused Republicans to call it a blow to one-party rule on Beacon Hill.
One candidate for governor referred to the behavior of former probation officials, who were accused of fixing a hiring system and funneling jobs to politically connected individuals, as “reprehensible,” while another said legislative leaders allowed taxpayer dollars to be wasted and damaged faith in government.
But some legislators, including multiple senators, were largely hesitant to react, passing reporters on their way in or out of the Senate chamber and declining to offer any thoughts on the verdict.
The convictions of former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and two ex-deputies meant they were once again asked to respond to the result of another scandal that has touched Beacon Hill. No lawmakers were charged, and prosecutors have not indicated they plan to charge any elected officials in connection with the crimes.
Secretary of State William Galvin, a Brighton Democrat and the state’s elections chief, said he wasn’t surprised by the verdict, given the length of the trial and the length of the jury’s deliberations.
Galvin said the verdict “reflects badly on government.”
“I think what the trial revealed, even for those of us that had nothing to do with it and knew nothing about it, it was surprising still to see some of the interactions that went on and the abuse of process and justice,” he told reporters.
When a reporter noted the defense’s argument that patronage is a part of government, Galvin said, “I think the jury has said that’s not acceptable. And I think that’s certainly what the verdict is.”
Sen. Thomas McGee, who chairs the state Democratic Party, walked by reporters and declined to comment on the verdict, saying he had been in the state Senate for most of the day.
Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, emerged from the chamber on Thursday afternoon and immediately directed reporters to her statement, declining further comment.
“My office receives hundreds of requests for assistance for education, healthcare, housing, employment and more,” Murray said in the statement. “As previously stated, I was unaware of any possible scheme or improper hiring practices at probation and, when I did learn what was going on, led a thorough overhaul of hiring at the department. The new system, which the probation department recently implemented, ensures that highly qualified probation officers are hired.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop), accused by prosecutors of being an unindicted co-conspirator during the trial, slipped out of the building in the early evening without speaking to reporters waiting outside his office.
His office released a lengthy statement claiming that the jury’s verdict “confirmed” that neither he nor lawmakers engaged in inappropriate conduct, because “they did not conclude that any form of bribery occurred.”
DeLeo’s attorney Robert Popeo said the verdict “exonerates” DeLeo of the allegation that he was part of a conspiracy to give probation jobs to House members so they would support him as speaker. O’Brien was acquitted of bribery and convicted of illegal gratuity.
“The jury by finding there was no bribery found therefore there was no quid pro quo, and no agreement therefore to swap jobs for votes or jobs for budget or jobs for anything else,” Popeo told the News Service. He said the lesser finding that O’Brien was guilty of giving illegal gratuity removes DeLeo from culpability in the crime. Popeo said, “There is nothing in the jury verdict that implicates DeLeo.”
During the trial, lawmakers testified that DeLeo or his aide Leonard Mirasolo called to offer them an opportunity to recommend a candidate for open probation jobs, but said there was never a guarantee that the person they recommended would be hired.
“They failed,” Popeo said. He said the jury “rejected the notion that DeLeo was a party to the objective that allegedly O’Brien was set out to accomplish.”
Lawmakers in the House and Senate passed a new law on job recommendations in 2011 in reaction to the probation department scandal. State agencies are now prevented from considering written recommendations on behalf of job candidates until the final stage of the hiring process.
Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) called the verdict “very unsettling” and said that over his three decades in the State House he has witnessed what he calls “incremental bureaucratic creep” that leaves legislators unsure of whether their actions stray across the line.
“The public has come to expect legislators will help them in their interactions with government,” Rosenberg told the News Service. He said there has been a “total cultural shift” and the verdict in the probation case is “reverberating through the whole system” including the legislative and executive branches.
“From the point of view of the constituent calling, they are just asking for a hand,” said Rosenberg, who added lawmakers are asked to make recommendations for everything from a job to entry into the Naval Academy.
Rosenberg said he has heard that some members have the “Ethics Commission phone number on speed dial,” and call the agency regularly to be sure they are not about to commit a violation. He said, “Smart, honest people shouldn’t have to do that.” Ahead of this fall’s elections, Rosenberg has claimed the votes necessary to become Senate president next year. Asked if he would use the office to assist members in their requests from constituents, Rosenberg noted that individual members have staffs, and suggested freshmen members could be given “advice.”
House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, a North Reading Republican, said Thursday’s verdict sent a “loud and clear” message that the heavily Democratic make-up of state government “desperately needs to change.”
Kirsten Hughes, the chairwoman of the state Republican Party, said candidates at all levels have been discussing the case with voters and will continue to highlight the verdict as evidence of the problems with one-party dominance on Beacon Hill.
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely and in order to change things up here you need to send someone else to Beacon Hill and that means electing more Republicans at the local level and putting Charlie Baker in the governor’s seat,” Hughes told the News Service at the State House Thursday.
Referring to DeLeo as the “fourth speaker in a row who has been disgraced,” Hughes questioned the reluctance of most rank-and-file lawmakers to stand up to the type of patronage alleged in the trial.
“You may know your person. You may like your state rep. They may be a Democrat. But did they take a stand against the power and corruption that’s happening, and the answer often is no,” Hughes said.
While the Senate was weighing a bill reforming public housing authorities, Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Mattapan), visited the chamber and was also asked to comment on the verdict. “No,” he said when asked if he could comment. Asked if he was surprised by the verdict, Holmes said, “No, by no means.”
Rep. Michael Moran (D-Brighton), who testified during the trial, also declined to comment.
Four of the candidates running for governor sounded supportive notes for the verdict in their statements. Charlie Baker, a Republican candidate and a former health insurance executive, called the trial “ugly,” saying, “Today is proof positive that the last eight years of one-party rule has bred corruption and waste in state government as my opponents stood by.”
Attorney General Martha Coakley said the verdict sends a “clear message that the corrupt hiring practices at issue were wrong and illegal,” while Treasurer Steve Grossman said the former probation officials’ “reprehensible” behavior “demonstrates the urgent need to reform Beacon Hill and to restore confidence in our government and its leaders.”
Berwick, who like Coakley and Grossman, is competing in the Democratic primary for governor, said he would lead an investigation into patronage in state government if he is elected governor. “Legislative leaders who were complicit by their actions or by their silence have allowed taxpayer dollars to be wasted, and, worse, have once again damaged faith in government,” Berwick said.
Asked what the verdict’s impact on the fall elections will be, Secretary Galvin, the elections chief, said, “I can’t say yet, it’s too early for that.”
Full statements or excerpts from lawmakers, candidates and others are available below:
Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker: “Today is a victory for taxpayers who deserve better than the one-party rule on Beacon Hill where politicians trade favors and turn a blind eye to abuses of power. Regardless of the verdict today, the ugly trial made clear that state government is in desperate need of a new direction, with balance and real leadership where this type of disrespect for taxpayers’ money is replaced by transparency and accountability. Today is proof positive that the last eight years of one-party rule has bred corruption and waste in state government as my opponents stood by.”
Democratic candidate for governor Don Berwick: “The jury appears to have reached the correct decision in the Probation trial. Political patronage must not be considered ‘business as usual’ on Beacon Hill. Patronage poisons public trust. Jobs in government – especially jobs that affect the wellbeing and safety of the public – should be filled based on who is most qualified to do the work, not on who knows whom or who owes someone a favor. The public has a right to expect much better from our leaders.”
Attorney General Martha Coakley: “I want to commend the jury for their thoughtful deliberations in this difficult and complicated case. Today’s verdict sends a clear message that the corrupt hiring practices at issue were wrong and illegal. The rigged hiring system at the Probation Department never should have been accepted as ‘business as usual.’ Now we must remain vigilant that public accountability and transparency in government is enforced.”
House Speaker Robert DeLeo: “The jury’s verdict today is consistent with the findings of the Independent Counsel almost four years ago–which found no impropriety on my part. I must point out that the only reason that the U.S. Attorney identified me as an unindicted co-conspirator–one of 34 such persons– was to permit hearsay testimony by an immunized witness of a conversation to which I was not a party. It also needs to be pointed out again, that the U.S. Attorney failed to call the only other party to the conversation to testify.”
Treasurer Steve Grossman: “John O’Brien and his colleagues engaged in reprehensible behavior, abused the power of their office, and violated the public’s trust. The Probation Department hiring scheme unveiled during this trial demonstrates the urgent need to reform Beacon Hill and to restore confidence in our government and its leaders.”
House Minority Leader Brad Jones: “Today’s ruling is further testament to the utter failure and negative consequences one-party government represents to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth. The jury’s verdict should serve as a loud and clear message that the way the Democratic-led state government operates desperately needs to change.”
Pam Wilmot of Common Cause: “Today’s conviction means the jury was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that John O’Brien and Elizabeth Tavares violated federal laws when they hired unqualified politically connected applicants in order to curry favor with legislative leaders. It also seems highly likely that O’Brien, Tavares, William Burke III and possibly others may have violated state ethics laws by securing unwarranted privileges for unqualified applicants and by falsifying documents and we urge the Ethics Commission to pursue the matter. The defendants, and possibly others, have also violated the trust of the people of Massachusetts.”