Our Opinion: Price of patronage


The trial in Boston of former Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien on allegations that he traded jobs for legislative favors poked along largely unnoticed until it exploded into view last week with the judicial ruling that prosecutors could argue that House Speaker Robert DeLeo participated in Mr. O’Brien’s conspiracy. That ignited a debate over whether trading jobs for favors is a crime or just how business is conducted on Beacon Hill.

There is a third alternative, however. Criminal activity or not, it shouldn’t happen -- and it is out of control.

Whatever the result of the trial, which has now gone to the jury, it is clear that the Probation Department became a patronage haven, with the well-connected getting jobs they were often unqualified for while well-qualified applicants were snubbed and employees who deserved promotions were denied them. This was obvious before the trial and has become more apparent through testimony.

Last week, US District Court Judge William G. Young, after rejecting the request of defense lawyers to dismiss charges against Mr. O’Brien and two co-defendants, ruled that prosecutors could assert that "there was a concerted effort of O’Brien and DeLeo to bribe the reps," with Mr. DeLeo getting votes for Speaker in 2009 in exchange for jobs for legislators’ constituents, many of them in the Probation Department. The speaker responded by angrily accusing prosecutors, who have not charged him with any crimes, of trying him in the press instead.

Legislators rallied to the defense of Mr. DeLeo, which is not surprising, and Mr. DeLeo has been an effective leader, consistently supporting worthy progressive causes. What comes across disturbingly in news accounts is the indignation of the legislators quoted who see nothing wrong with the patronage system.

Obviously, people get jobs everywhere, including in the private sector, because they have friends or family members in high places. It isn’t fair to qualified job applicants, its bad for business and government; it shouldn’t happen, but it does. The problem on Beacon Hill is that patronage has become such an accepted practice that there are no longer any checks and balances against abuse. A disaster was inevitable and it happened in the Probation Department.

A 2010 Boston Globe spotlight report shed light on the festering mess in Probation. It put names and faces to the unqualified hacks getting well-paid taxpayer-funded jobs, important jobs in the criminal justice system, and names and faces to the unconnected but qualified employees and applicants who were bypassed. This was the result of the attitude that patronage is fine, it is the way things are done, and stunningly, in the wake of the Probation Department fiasco, that attitude hasn’t changed on Beacon Hill.

That attitude hasn’t changed even though the last three Speakers were indicted on federal charges ranging from tax evasion to obstruction of justice to corruption. The last time that legislators manned the barricades in defense of a speaker was in January of 2009, when they voted to re-elect Speaker Salvatore DiMasi even though he was under attack for allegedly rigging a state software contract. Mr. DiMasi resigned that same month, was convicted on corruption charges two years later and continues to serve his time in prison today. The cavalier attitude toward conflicts of interest simply invites abuse.

It was a stretch to defend patronage pre-Probation Department mess, but to continue to do so after it casts lawmakers as out-of-touch cynics is worse. Patronage breeds scandal, is wrong on its merits, and scandal or no scandal, it must end.


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