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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Beacon Hill Blues

While all the talk these days is about casinos, we are a judicial scandal away from a public official trifecta.

Deval Patrick is wrestling with a variety of headaches -- from a failure to oversee pharmacies to a state drug lab that faked results that's led to a major court system nightmare. There's also the matter of a former highway safety chief who was unclear of the concept. Oh, and the budget may be coming up short.

Then there's former Treasurer Tim Cahill quietly standing trial on charges he used state lottery ads to promote his failed gubernatorial campaign.

But it's likely none of the past or present headaches rival the one looming over House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

While DeLeo says he will not be the fourth consecutive speaker to be indicted, Tom Finneran, is said to have been granted immunity from a federal grand jury investigating the patronage practices of the probation department. Another predecessor, Sal DiMasi has already made the long bus ride from federal lockup to meet the grand jurors.

The focus of the probe is said to land on one-time Speaker pro tempore Thomas Petrolati, but DeLeo is by no means a totally innocent bystander. Former probation boss John O'Brien is a DeLeo friend and already under indictment.

The speaker's godson, Brian Mirasolo, became the youngest chief probation officer in the state under O'Brien's watch. And, as the Globe notes, Leonard Mirasolo, was a top DeLeo aide -- handling the Probation Department budget -- before retiring this year.

What was the name of that show? Too Close for Comfort?

All of this portends poorly as Patrick and lawmakers get back to business in January. Aside from the looming budget shortfall, there's no shortage of issues for them to tackle, starting with the state's crumbling transportation infrastructure and the lack of funds to fix it.

Instead, the focus in the early months of 2013 is likely to be centered on the grand jury room in Worcester where the latest chapter of As the Speaker Turns plays out.

Entertaining grist for blog mills? Yes. Good for the Commonwealth? Hardly.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Desperately seeking Beacon Hill

It's Feb. 24. Do you know where your state Legislature is? On vacation.

The State of the State has been stated. The budget presented. Almost two full months into the election year-shortened schedule -- and one month after those two benchmarks -- and the Great and General Court has enacted 32 session laws. An accomplishment? If you are a community looking to create liquor licenses or set up a voting precinct, you bet. If not, meh.

Members of the ways and means committee from both branches are fanning out across the state, holding hearings on the budget while the unsung worker bee analysts on these committees are burning the midnight oil.

But the members, not so much. Maybe they are hunkered down, awaiting the bombshells expected to emerge from Worcester after imprisoned former Speaker Sal DiMasi tells what he knows about the probation department's hiring practices.

Like the promotions struck down by a Superior Court judge as invalid.

And we are told that lawmakers are finally "close" to an agreement on a sentencing reform bill they have been haggling about for months.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room, the $161 million MBTA deficit, its strangling debt and how to deal with it in a way that's equitable from Provincetown to Pittsfield has drawn virtual silence from Deval Patrick on down.

Legislative bodies tend to act best when faced with a deadline. Just look at Congress. OK, bad example.

Actually it's a pretty good one. Act in haste, repent (or attack) in leisure isn't the best way to deal with the challenges we face as a state and nation.

Tick, tock.

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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Sorry Charlie

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has one word for people who think the Legislature will come to the rescue of the MBTA. No.

DeLeo ruled out any new taxes in the fiscal 2013 budget that will emerge from his branch in April during an address to this members yesterday. While he was referring to a series of hikes on tobacco, candy and soda sought by Gov. Deval Patrick to support education, social services and local aid, there is a broader undertone to the message.

The MBTA is in the midst of a marathon of public hearings over proposed fare increases and service cuts that make it seem that legislative intervention may be needed to avoid chaos, not to mention jammed buses, trains and highways.

The silence from Patrick and DeLeo is almost as deafening as the unspoken message from T officials and riders staring at a yawning gap that is only expected to get bigger thanks to Big Dig debt hung on the transit agency by lawmakers at the turn of the century.

Obviously it is way too soon for Beacon Hill to signal any support for what would undoubtedly be an unpleasant rise in the gas tax, something far more likely to raise the hackles of a business community that DeLeo says needs predictability and consistency in the tax code.

There's also a political question of whether the House has the stomach for the wrenching debate at the same time it is holding its breath over the impending federal grand jury testimony by imprisoned former Speaker Sal DiMasi.

It's still very early in this multi-act drama and the script now calls for rejecting the suitor's sly advances. But this is work in progress could be hit with a major rewrite once the road tryouts come to a close.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Singing speaker

Who knew Sal DiMasi was a singer?

But reports suggest the disgraced former speaker is Bay State-bound, supposedly en route to a federal grand jury in Worcester that is taking testimony in the Probation Department scandal that centers around John O'Brien.

Neither DiMasi nor his successor, Robert DeLeo, are strangers to the concept of patronage, which O'Brien did better than probation by some accounts. DiMasi testimony could place DeLeo, former Treasurer Tim Cahill and former House leader Thomas Petrolati in what George Bush 41 so elegantly called deep doo-doo.

By all accounts, DiMasi and his family have been bereft since his conviction and imprisonment in Kentucky. A better placement and perhaps time off for cooperation could be in the offing in exchange for testimony, although DiMasi and his family would no doubt become persona non grata.

All speculation to be sure, but the pace of activity around the Legislature has been even slower than normal, suggesting a preoccupation with things other than state business.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Silence is not golden

Be afraid, Tim Cahill. Be very afraid.

The silence from Martha Coakley was deafening as she announced the indictment of former probation chief John O'Brien. Asked if the investigation of he patronage haven that was the Probation Department was over, Coakley simply said:
"This is the beginning of the investigation, not the end of it."
The indictment stem from allegations that O'Brien became a Cahill fund-raiser to help get his wife a job in the state Treasury.Lassoed in the same net was former Cahill chief of staff Scott Campbell.

With Sal DiMasi looking at federal accommodations for the next eight years, Cahill's tenure as Treasurer rats the next best look for those making sure Beacon Hill politics passes the sniff test.

We've had an incredible run through the rot on Beacon Hill in recent years, but so far no one elected statewide. This could be getting interesting.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Get out of jail card

At least there's no evidence yet that Dominic Cinelli's probation officer messed up.

But the Massachusetts Parole Board is in plenty of (justified) hot water for freeing the convicted killer who this week shot and killed a Woburn cop while fleeing from a jewelry robbery. And now we come to find out the Parole Board didn't even notify the Middlesex District Attorney's office about the hearing.

The two employees assigned to notify the DAs are already gone but the mess they left is going to serious entangle efforts to clean up the even bigger mess that is the state's post-prison system of parole and probation.

That's because the Massachusetts Parole Board is under the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, the cabinet agency to which Deval Patrick wants to assign control over the patronage-riddled Probation department.

Already a long shot move given the opposition of both the Judiciary and the Legislature, it seems appropriate to pull the plug on that idea -- even though there doesn't seem to be a better alternative, so far.

And the murder of John Maguire is also likely to put a harsh spotlight on the six-member panel that unanimously agreed to parole a violent offender who was serving three concurrent life sentences. (Hint: You may want to fix that rosy notice that "In 2009, the agency's success rate for individuals under community supervision was 78%!")

As someone who opposes the death penalty, I have no problem with the concept of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Even if the judges who sentenced Cinelli left the loophole, the board still has some explaining to do about why it apparently fell for the "I'm reformed" act of someone serving three concurrent life terms.

And you can't help but wonder if the absence of prosecutors opposing the release had a big something to do with this deadly mistake.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

He's not on probation

Some politicians like to talk about spending political capital. Deval Patrick is doing it by picking a fight with the legislature and the judiciary over probation.

While House Speaker Robert DeLeo chose the friendly confines of the Dan Rea Show to offer his most extensive comments about the probation scandal (he's angry!) Patrick went before newspaper publishers to challenge DeLeo and his hand-picked choice for chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

Arguing for legislation to take the department out of the judiciary (with legislative domination) and into the executive branch, Patrick threw down the gauntlet:
“I’m prepared to be responsible for that, but I want the authority that goes with that responsibility because, in my life experience, separating those two is fatal. The court has had a chance to oversee probation, and I respect the court, but most other states — I think 37 here in the United States — have probation within the executive branch.’’
Given the track record to date, it's a compelling argument for combining authority and responsibility.

Aside from expressing his anger, DeLeo did explain the rise in the department budget went beyond merely feathering its nest for patronage hires. But the lack of oversight -- something the legislature is clearly empowered to do -- suggests taxpayers need someone actually willing to look for hands in cookie jars.

This should be an interesting constitutional scrape.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

If you've got nothing good to say...

House Speaker Robert DeLeo seems intent on pushing his wing tips deeper into his mouth. Why else does he continue to defend what the public views as indefensible?

As the lawyers say, we will stipulate that hiring recommendations are part of the legislator's job. But as DeLeo insists his godson got a promotion based on his own work -- and not the initial push he provided -- the speaker misses the broader point, framed perfectly by Gov. Deval Patrick:
“I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with people making recommendations, just because they work in this building,’’ the governor said. “The question is, is the public’s interest first?’’
Yes, the public interest. Something legislative leaders like House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Murphy seems to miss when he reduces the Probation Department scandal to a question of whether jobs were for sale.

It's only been about 10 days -- and a holiday-shortened period at that -- but legislative leaders seem woefully unprepared to deal with the fallout from the Ware Report that confirmed published reports about the Probation Department Jobs Program and the role key legislators played in creating and maintaining it.

Rather than constantly returning to the "it's natural" theme, you would hope some thought has been given to crafting a legislative response to the abuses that clearly have not been in the public interest.

And when you hold a publicly scheduled meeting with the governor, knowing full well the press corps will be waiting outside the door, don't you think some thought should have been given to how you will answer the explosive question -- other than saying your godson is a great worker?

Patrick certainly did. It's time for DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray to stop wishing this will blow over. It won't.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Speaker speaks. Finally

Bristol Palin. Full-body scans and pat downs. A budding war in Korea. Thanksgiving Tuesday. Bobby DeLeo sure tried hard to bury the news.

It didn't work. Whether anyone is paying attention is still an open question, but the Probation Department scandal isn't going away any time soon.

Using a variation on the Friday afternoon news dump, a "saddened and upset" DeLeo used the Tuesday before Turkey Day to jettison Rep. Thomas Petrolati from his leadership team and offer his first minimally significant comment about the Ware Report and the Probation Depart Department patronage machine that has its roots in his House.
“The findings of the Independent Counsel . . . are severe, significant and disturbing,’’ said DeLeo. “It is clear the Probation Department cries out for reform and, as the speaker of the House, I intend to lead those reforms.’’
That's quite a different tone from the testimony he offered to independent counsel Paul Ware, when questioned about the hiring policies at a agency that served as an full-employment service from friends of lawmakers.
I look at it as my role as a legislator to be of any assistance that I can with my constituency, whether it’s a recommendation to — for a job, whether it’s to give whatever assistance I have because they’re down and out with housing or they’re trying to go through a state agency to get some help,’’ DeLeo testified.

“That’s my job as a legislator. I mean, it’s to recommend people.’’

I recommend a good lawyer. Dumping Petro is not going to be enough.

But all is not lost for Mr. Speaker. He can always count on the Hack Herald for support.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Frankly Charlie, I still don't think you get it

Listening to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Murphy talk about Ware Report on the probation department reminds me of an ill-fated conversation Mike Dukakis had with Ted Koppel in 1988:
"I still don't think you get it."
Faced with a report showing a department out of control, run by a dictatorial leader who spent much of his time rewarding friends and punishing foes, Murphy chose to dance on a head of a pin and talk about what was not included in the 337-page laceration of the agency controlled by the Legislature.
“Is there any evidence to suggest that jobs are for sale?’’ said Murphy. “Did Paul Ware say in his report that any legislator got money for jobs? The answer is no. He didn’t. It is not there. He says there is a statistical probability of something like that, a chance. That’s not evidence. And he was very clear to state that.’’
To call the response defensive would be a mild understatement. To call it clueless comes closer to the mark.

The outrage over the probation department stems from its overall sheltered status. It serves the judicial branch but it is controlled by the Legislature. The Executive branch, which should have a role, does not -- and Murphy makes clear that Gov. Deval Patrick should not count on getting his hands on the mess any time soon.
“It’s 337 pages, and we’re going to take our time to go through it,’’ Murphy told reporters outside the office of [House Speaker Robert] DeLeo, who has not spoken publicly about the scandal. “We’re not going to make rash judgments.’’
There is no need for rash judgments. Things are crystal clear. The office was run in a manner so out of touch with basic management skills, awarding convicted felons with jobs and banishing those who opposed it, that it needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

And that rebuilding process must include removal of the political component injected into it when former House Speaker Tom Finneran pushed through a change in the law in 2001 to give soon-to-be-ex-commissioner John J. O'Brien the keys to the candy store.

More than anything else in recent history, the probation department scandal represents everything the public finds wrong with government. When Murphy tries to parse sentences and insist this is not a Statehouse problem, as he did on one radio interview, he only reinforces the image of a politician who speaks out of both sides of his mouth.

Murphy's committee is charged with finding solutions to a likely $2 billion budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins in July. He and House leadership should read quickly and have a plan ready the day the new Legislature is sworn in, one that would cede control of the agency to either the executive or judicial branches.

They have a lot more important work to do that defend the indefensible.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Dancing with the Hacks

It's one of the most explosive investigations into the Massachusetts political patronage system in decades. But to the Tea Party Newsletter, it might as well be taking place in Alaska.

On the morning after the Supreme Judicial Court issues a scathing 300-plus page report by independent counsel Paul Ware exposing the state probation department -- and the elected officials who corrupted it -- The Herald leads with a paean to Palin and a Howie Carr grumble that it would have been nice to know about this before the election.

We did. Because we read the Globe.

We know Herald Editor Joe Scaccia has declared the understaffed newspaper is now in the business of doing exclusive content you can't get anywhere else. So I am truly gratified to know that a cyclist can get to Park Street faster than the Green Line C train. Wait a minute, I knew that too, because I actually use public transportation in this city.

The Ware Report will rumble the underpinnings of Beacon Hill in the new legislative session, with a number of lawmakers, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo mentioned as beneficiaries of the patronage nest created by his twice-removed, once-convicted predecessor and radio talk show host Tom Finneran.

And the heat continues to rise DeLeo's not-so-trustworthy No. 2, Tom Petrolati.

But Herald readers can remain entranced by the conspiracy theories surrounding Bristol Palin and whether the voting for Dancing with the Stars is rigged.

Far more important I guess than knowing the job creation system in the probation department really is rigged.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wanted: campaign spokesman

Rep. Michael Rush of West Roxbury must be running a lean and mean campaign for the Senate seat being vacated by Marian Walsh.

Rush has two massive PR problems. One is the rub-off effect of the controversy surrounding Walsh, who briefly took then rejected a $175,000 job in a quasi-public agency that had been vacant for 12 years.

Then there's the bigger problem of a hostile budget amendment moving trial court administration to Charlestown in pique over the treatment of his father. The chief probation officer in West Roxbury District Court.

Not surprisingly, Rush's opponent wants to make it an issue, asking for a "full accounting of his involvement" with the probation department and his political maneuvering. All the makings of a tricky press story that a candidate needs to prepare for with, at the very least, a classic non-response response.

Give Rush at least a few brownie points for eschewing the obvious and offering a direct, if unsatisfying answer:
Rush responded in an e-mail to the Globe, writing, “I have no comment.’’
Word to the wise: spend a few bucks to get a better answer. You're going to need one. And maybe spring for a telephone too.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

They wouldn't. Would they?

The Herald is out today with a story that's been rumbling in the weeds and on the radar screens of junkies who thrive on the Statehouse News Service: the Speaker and the Senate President are playing a game of high-stakes chicken and the consequences could be major.

It's the ultimate in inside baseball and nothing really new under the sun. And they would have to go a long way to match the epic battles between Tom Finneran and Tom Birmingham, whose 1999 budget standoff stretched into November and included negotiating sessions on office balconies.

Time is the enemy here, with the formal sessions set to expire when the clock strikes August. And the issues are weightier than "just" a budget.

DeLeo is fuming the Senate has slowed down the runaway train called his casino proposal, which is undergoing serious rewrites in anticipation of a debut next month. So he in turn is talking about holding up Murray's health care cost control bill, the equivalent jewel in her crown.

Who blinks first? It's anybody's guess but don't underestimate Murray's will or the important hole card she just drew: the probation department scandal.

Judiciary Committee Chair Cynthia Stone Creem has come up with a plan to rein in the rogue department without turning oversight over to the executive branch.

That's in sharp contrast to the shoulder shrug offer by DeLeo, whose godson is the state's young chief probation officer and whose trusted sidekick, Speaker pro tem Tom Petrolati, has had a productive career matching his supporters with probation jobs.

It is the silly season on Beacon Hill and the level of cluelessness has been high as speakers and senators get indicted while the public anger builds. I somehow doubt this latest standoff between the House and Senate will end badly for their respective leaders.

I wish I could be as sure about the public.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Has anyone seen the Herald?

The Supreme Judicial Court suspends Probation Commissioner John O'Brien while Deval Patrick, Robert DeLeo and Therese Murray continue to squabble over the proper way to run the department, while O'Brien takes aim at Chief Administrative Judge Robert Mulligan.

Tim Cahill, meanwhile, who employs the wife and two children of the now-suspended O'Brien assists his staggering campaign as it swirls ever closer to the drain by denying any role in their hiring and utters words that will live forever in the lore of Beacon Hill by uttering:
“Does that not happen in government all the time?" Obviously, it is part of the political process. It’s an unfortunate part when it’s been brought to this level."
And while all this turmoil roils on Beacon Hill, where's the Herald? Telling its readers about the Twitter war that's been raging among the candidates' surrogates. And Deval Patrick's provocative choice of words about the national Republican strategy.

It's always hard for a news organization to cover exclusives generated by the competition. Both pride and resources come into play. But when the three branches of government focus on just one issue -- and a gubernatorial candidate seems to find himself in the middle of the mother of all patronage scandals, one that may well consume his campaign -- it's hard to justify pride.

Unless, of course, they expect their readers to learn about Cahill's political demise on the Twitter.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Talk softly and carry a big stick

Now we know why Deval Patrick seemed to be holding out a carrot to the Legislature during Thursday night's State of the State address. He was about the bash them with a big stick.

Patrick, with an assist from the Spotlight Team, is ready to force a closer look at one of the more patronage-infested areas of state government: the court system. In particular, the aim is a probation system characterized as "the fastest-growing but most secretive state agencies."

It's one of the worst-kept secrets in the budget process: stashing former lawmakers and their aides in the system as court clerks, assistant court clerks and assistant to the assistant clerk. Toss in the probation system and you have a system steeped in politically connected employees with varying interest in showing up for work.

Not to mention the fact the system appears to be run in such slipshod way that a low level clerk can allegedly embezzle $2 million without anyone noticing.

For a governor running for re-election in a bad budget year on a promise to level fund education and local aid funding, it's a slam dunk move, proposing to consolidate probation and parole into one unit at a cost saving of $40 million.

But, as the Globe notes, Patrick is taking aim at a sacred cow of another kind -- a system whose patrons include House Speaker pro tempore Thomas Petrolati and Senate Transportation Chairman Steven Baddour, a persistent gubernatorial critic.

Toss in a challenge to Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall and Chief Justice of Administration and Management Robert Mulligan -- vocal critics of previous court system budget cuts -- and you have a three-ring donnybrook (subscription required).

Just the prescription for a candidate setting himself up as still outside the system despite three years at the helm.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Friends of the General Court

Sal DiMasi. Dianne Wilkerson. Marie Morey.

Huh?

The first two names are well known for the allegations (not yet proven in a court of law) that they enriched themselves at the Commonwealth's fiscal coffers. Morey, the Lawrence District Court probation officer accused of pocketing more than $2 million, might seem a stretch to join the pantheon of public misdeed.

But wait, tucked in the Globe story chronicling how court officials seemingly overlooked warnings about lax cash oversight, is this little gem about probation department run by the state's trial court system.
The Probation Department received a major funding boost two weeks ago, when the Legislature voted to override a veto by Governor Deval Patrick and restored a $4.3 million cut to its budget. O’Brien, who has close ties to many lawmakers, including House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and employs several legislators’ friends and relatives, also would not explain why the Probation Department should escape the kind of budget cuts most other state agencies have suffered. Records and recent studies show the department’s budget has ballooned over the past several years.
Programs for the homeless and for violence prevention hang in the balance until the state pulls out cash from hidden corners. A public infrastructure investment into a private project that has generated jobs and tax dollars is withdrawn after whispered suggestions of a political quid pro quo.

And the probation department gets $4.3 million restored to its budget.

One of the worst kept secrets on Beacon Hill is the use of the court system as a dumping ground for political plums. It would be fascinating if the Globe or Herald took a look at the number of former lawmakers or top aides salted away as clerks, deputy clerks and deputy assistant clerks in the district and superior courts.

It's the kind of back scratching that enables the probation office to keep its appropriation (and payroll) while human services get ravaged and savaged.

The virtual silence from legislative leaders is deafening.

DeLeo refused yesterday to be interviewed about the Lawrence case, but his spokesman, Seth Gitell, said in an e-mailed statement that prosecutors had painted a picture of “a disturbing financial scheme.’’

“The charges reinforce the need for strict financial review procedures and adequate oversight,’’ the statement said.

Senate President Therese Murray issued a statement saying the allegations “underscore the importance of having the best possible system of checks and balances in place to account for payments throughout the system.’’

In the meantime, 21 members of the House -- on a six-week end-of-session break -- refuse to take the five unpaid furlough days being asked of their employees. And 28 members of the House were laid off in a move that one member suggested reeked of political payback.

Glad the Great and General Court has its priorities straight.

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