Probation cloud hits county

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The Massachusetts Probation Department, beleaguered by the suspension of its commissioner last week amid reports of rampant patronage, has given contradictory statements about a local probation case involving a banking executive and a chief probation officer.

Until last week, probation officials in Boston had remained silent in regard to Eagle questions about whether a conflict of interest occurred when Berkshire Superior Court Probation Chief Clifford J. Nilan supervised the criminal case of his friend and colleague, Angelo C. Stracuzzi, the president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union. Nilan serves on Greylock's board of directors.

In response to an Eagle inquiry in January, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Probation Department confirmed that Nilan supervised Stracuzzi's probation.

Now, in what appears to be an aboutface, probation officials say Nilan wasn't among the probation officers who supervised Stracuzzi while he was on probation in the Berkshires from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006.

Stracuzzi, who has held his current position at Pittsfield- based Greylock since 2003, also said he was never supervised by Nilan. Five years ago this month, Stracuzzi was convicted in York County Superior Court in Alfred, Maine, of assaulting a young male in the coastal town of Biddeford, according to Maine probation officials.

Stracuzzi pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of assault and criminal mischief on May 25, 2005, and received a 364-day suspended jail sentence and a one-year probation term, which was transferred to Massachusetts.

Nilan said he is barred from commenting about specifics of the probation case. Coria Holland, the director of communications for the Massachusetts Probation Department, said the agency would answer The Eagle's detailed questions about the case this week. The newspaper has been seeking comment for nearly five months.

Stracuzzi, 61, told The Eagle last week that he was charged with assault after he pushed a young male hitchhiker out of his car in Biddeford one afternoon. Stracuzzi said he believes the criminal mischief charge was leveled against him because he broke the hitchhiker's necklace.

The Eagle has formally requested more information about the case, but the Biddeford Police Department and York County District Attorney Mark Lawrence have yet to respond.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts probation officials have not explained why the initial information provided to The Eagle apparently has changed. But the confusion comes amid upheaval in the Massachusetts Probation Department, whose commissioner, John J. O'Brien, was suspended last week after a series of Boston Globe reports shed light on alleged improprieties in the state agency.

O'Brien's oversight of the Probation Department since 1998 is in question following allegations that political patronage played a role in the hiring and promotion practices of the state agency. In some cases, probation officers contributed money to powerful state politicians to advance their probation careers, according to The Globe.

The newspaper's reports prompted Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan to place O'Brien on immediate administrative leave on Monday.

The Eagle first began seeking comment from O'Brien in January regarding the possible conflict- of- interest issue in the Stracuzzi case. In a Feb. 1 e-mail to The Eagle, Maria T. Walsh, an official in O'Brien's office, wrote: "Angelo Stracuzzi was supervised in the Superior Court by Cliff Nilan and Mike Koperniak."

That revelation prompted further Eagle inquiries, each seeking comment from O'Brien regarding Nilan's purported connection to the Stracuzzi case. But O'Brien never addressed the issue.

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An e- mail from Holland on Thursday, however, said "an initial review [from the Probation Department] indicates that Chief Probation Officer Cliff Nilan was not involved in the direct supervision of the probation of Angelo Stracuzzi, which concluded in mid-2005." Maine probation officials, however, said Stracuzzi's probation term ended on June 30, 2006.

Nilan and Stracuzzi have been friends and colleagues for years. Nilan has served on Greylock Federal Credit Union's board of directors since 1994 and currently is clerk/ treasurer of the credit union, according to Greylock's website. Nilan was chairman of the board from 2000 to 2004.

Nilan, in a phone message to The Eagle on Thursday, said he would like to "clear up misconceptions" about his involvement with the Stracuzzi case, but noted that probation personnel have been ordered not to speak to the media.

"I'd like to talk soon," he said. "I just don't know when I'll be able to."

All seven justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court signed an order Monday calling for "a prompt and thorough administrative inquiry into alleged improprieties with respect to hiring and promotion of employees" at the state Probation Department. The justices also appointed Paul W. Ware Jr., an attorney with the Boston law firm Goodwin Procter, to conduct the inquiry and to report back to the court within 90 days.

Deb Grasso, Ware's legal assistant, said the attorney is looking into numerous allegations involving the Probation Department and might expand his probe to include the Berkshires. Southern Berkshire District Court Probation Chief Alfred E. "Alf" Barbalunga, the son of a retired county judge, was cited in The Globe's report as a possible recipient of a patronage job.

As for Stracuzzi, he told The Eagle that he requested his probation case be transferred from Maine to Massachusetts so that he wouldn't have to travel to Alfred from Pittsfield.

"Frankly, it was really more for convenience," he said.

Steve Onacki, a Maine probation officer who briefly supervised Stracuzzi, said the Massachusetts Probation Department accepted Stracuzzi's case on July 13, 2005. Onacki said the case was transferred through the so-called interstate compact, which allows a defendant to complete a probation term in his home state.

Onacki said Stracuzzi received good reports from Berkshire probation officials, but the Maine probation officer was unable to name those officials.

Stracuzzi said he knows Nilan and Koperniak - a line probation officer who works under Nilan - but insisted he was never supervised by either man. Stracuzzi said he merely went to the front desk of the Superior Court probation office, where he routinely dealt with a member of Nilan's staff who was not a probation officer.

"Basically, [the staff member] would say to me, 'Do you want to see a probation officer?' and I would say, 'No,' " said Stracuzzi, who was required to report monthly to the office during his probation.

Stracuzzi said he was "embarrassed" by his Maine conviction and was glad Nilan never raised the matter with him.

"I've known [Nilan] for a long time," Stracuzzi said. " To his credit, he never chided me about this."


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