Our Opinion: Scandal fades, but corruption fight continues

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The state Probation Department patronage scandal has ended with a court concluding that engaging in political patronage (rewarding supporters with office appointments, jobs or favors) is not illegal. That doesn't make it right, however, and the takeaway from this lengthy process is that patronage is less likely to be practiced going forward.

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston declined to hear an appeal of its decision in December to overturn the public corruption convictions of former Probation Department head John J. O'Brien and former deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke III. The court's decision ends a saga that began in 2010 with publication in The Boston Globe of a Spotlight team report revealing favoritism in hiring practices in the department.

The Globe found that job applicants sponsored by state legislators were often hired or promoted over more qualified candidates. Department officials said that their superiors gave them lists of favored candidates and they were asked to change interview scores to move the candidates up in the rankings. The independent Ware Commission confirmed the Globe's findings and added further detail.

At a 2014 trial, state prosecutors argued that because the department received budget increases and added political clout by their actions, Mr. O'Brien and his colleagues were guilty of racketeering for running their department like a criminal enterprise. The jury convicted the three, but none served any jail time. Defense lawyers didn't deny that their clients engaged in political patronage but based their defense on the assertion that none of their actions were illegal. The Appeals Court agreed, ruling in December that the actions, while distasteful, did not violate state or federal laws regarding to gratuities or racketeering.

The outcome of the trial, however, is ultimately less important than the actions taken in response to the exposure of the patronage system in the Probation Department. The Legislature in 2011, working from the Ware Commission report, created the position of court administrator to oversee administrative, non-judicial tasks at the department and at the state's trial court. Job andidates must disclose on their applications if they have any relatives within the state and the recommendations of candidates who are hired are made public. Minimum eligibility standards have been established and references are considered only if those requirements are met and after applicants have been vetted by a hiring panel. Governor Patrick signed the reforms into law that year.

Patronage is difficult to root out, and the anti-corruption regulations instituted in 2011 are ultimately only as good as the people whose job it is to enforce them. A benefit of this seven-year process, however, is that the unfavorable attention it brought to Beacon Hill may cause lawmakers and department officials to think twice before engaging in any practice that may be interpreted as patronage. The importance of job recommendations by legislators has been downgraded and the scandal should cause lawmakers to be cautious about recommending applicants to jobs they are plainly unqualified to have.

While the Probation Department earned all the unwelcome attention, no state department should be freed of the oversight that is now given Probation. This is not to infer guilt, as the vast majority of government officials and workers are dedicated to their profession, but when taxpayer money is involved strict oversight is necessary.

Massachusetts, unfortunately, has long had a reputation for political corruption, and the departure of three consecutive House Speakers after they were indicted on federal charges ranging from tax evasion to obstruction of justice to corruption in recent years has only worsened it. The Probation Department story may be over after seven years, but the fight against patronage and corruption continues.

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