Thursday July 19, 2012

Scandals come and go on Beacon Hill without affecting the political culture there, but the Probation Department mess may just be the welcome exception. The aggressive prosecution of the patronage scandal strongly indicates that this is one scandal that won't just fade into history.

Prosecutors for Attorney General Martha Coakley Tuesday revealed that two top aides to former Probation Commissioner John J. O'Brien, former legislative liaison Edward P. Ryan and former deputy commissioner Francis M. Wall, have been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony against Mr. O'Brien in state and federal corruption investigations. Several other witnesses have reportedly been granted immunity and it is still possible that Mr. O'Brien will get a deal in exchange for testimony against legislators who may have sought jobs for associates in exchange for supporting funding increases for the department. Both Mr. Wall and Mr. Ryan are believed to have testified already in a bribery case brought against Mr. O'Brien for allegedly organizing a fundraiser for Timothy Cahill, then the state treasurer, in exchange for help in getting a job for Mr. O'Brien's wife in the lottery, which Mr. Cahill controlled. Mr. Cahill is not charged in the case.

As former state legislator and current Eagle columnist Robert F. Jakubowicz observed in Wednesday's op-ed page, it is difficult to convict a public official on patronage charges because this kind of political favoritism is not illegal. However, U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz argues that the Probation Department was so patronage-riddled it was operated as a criminal enterprise, and a reading of the report by independent prosecutor Paul F. Ware into the hiring practices of the Probation Department would support this conclusion.

According to the Ware report, qualified people were denied well-paying, taxpayer-funded Probation Department jobs over a period of years in favor of unqualified political hacks, which should infuriate residents who paid those salaries. Patronage is deeply rooted in political cultures, which doesn't means concerted efforts should not be made to get at those roots. The outcome of the prosecution of this scandal is far off and far from certain but it has the potential to be a culture-changer.