BOSTON -- Gov. Deval Patrick insisted on Thursday that the four members of his cabinet who are departing his administration, including Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, all chose to leave on their own and would have been welcome to stay on for the final two years of his administration.
Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez, Secretary of Public Safety Mary Beth Heffernan and Secretary of Education Paul Reville also will step down from their posts next month, having decided they could not commit to serving the full two years as the governor had requested. Patrick has ruled out running for re-election in 2014.
"Each knows how much I appreciate them and how much I would proudly have them finish the term with me," he told reporters.
The governor named John Polanowicz, president of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Boston, to replace Bigby; Glen Shor, head of the state's health care connector, to take over for Gonzalez; Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral to succeed Heffernan; and Brockton School Superintendent Matthew Malone to replace Reville. All will assume their new posts next month.
The changes come as the administration grapples with several thorny issues, notably an estimated $540 tax revenue shortfall and a drug testing scandal in a former state public health department lab that threatens to unravel thousands of criminal cases.
Bigby, whose office oversees public health, had come under scrutiny for her response to the drug testing crisis and for the agency's oversight of compounding pharmacies amid a deadly nationwide outbreak of fungal meningitis linked to a Massachusetts firm.
Patrick vigorously defended Bigby, citing her "tenacity, creativity, resiliency and effectiveness." He commended her for successfully implementing the state's first-in-the-nation universal health insurance law and for a more recent initiative to rein in health care costs.
Asked if Bigby, as secretary, bears any responsibility for the public health crises, the governor answered:
"I bear the responsibility. We had a criminal in the drug lab. We had a situation with the oversight of the compounding pharmacies which she and the team have responded to exceptionally well."
Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at the lab, has been accused of manipulating drug tests involving 34,000 cases over nine years. She has pleaded not guilty.
"There are going to be in large organizations things that go wrong," Patrick added. "We hope that when things go wrong they don't result in deaths as has been the case with the meningitis outbreak."
Polanowicz called the drug lab crisis "incredibly unfortunate" but did not immediately say if operational changes in the public health agency were needed.
"I think the commitment is to ensure we all learn from what we found and try to put the systems and processes in place to ensure that it doesn't happen [again]," he said.
Bigby appeared at Thursday's announcement but left without commenting.
Rep. Brad Jones, the House Republican leader who had recently called for Bigby's resignation, said in a statement that Bigby's departure was a first step in restoring trust and confidence in the administration.
Questions had been raised about Heffernan's role in another recent controversy involving the 2007 hiring of Sheila Burgess as state highway safety director. She resigned last month amid reports of her own spotty driving record. Heffernan was listed in Burgess' job application as having referred her for the job, and a spokesman said Heffernan, who was an undersecretary at the time, conducted an "informational interview" with Burgess.
Cabral, the state's first female sheriff, has been praised for reforming the patronage-riddled sheriff's department, though her tenure has not been without controversy. She was the subject of a two-year federal investigation into whether she misled a grand jury looking into the firing of a nurse who had reportedly told the FBI about the alleged abuse of a county inmate.
No charges were brought, and Cabral later complained of unfair tactics by federal prosecutors.
"This is an unbelievable opportunity to move public safety forward in the next two years," Cabral said of her decision to leave the sheriff's office and take the state public safety post.
Cabral said she has not decided whether to seek elective office in the future and did not completely rule out a run for mayor of Boston if Mayor Thomas Menino decides not to seek a sixth term next year.
Gonzalez, the governor's top budget aide, was lauded by Patrick for guiding the state's finances through the economic downturn, maintaining critical services and keeping the state's bond rating high.
Gonzalez appeared with Patrick a week ago to announce that the state was revising downward its revenue projection after several months of lower-than-expected tax collections. The administration ordered $225 million in cuts in the executive branch and asked lawmakers to approve similar cuts in other areas of government.
At least four other cabinet secretaries agreed to stay on for the final two years of Patrick's term, including Transportation Secretary Richard Davey and Richard Sullivan, secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.