The whole smarmy business makes you want to take a shower, but the racketeering and conspiracy trial of former Probation Commissioner Jack O’Brien and two top aides was more than just your garden variety patronage. As the Globe’s Tom Farragher put it, it was “patronage on steroids and … criminal.”
Nepotism, cronyism, getting a job because of whom you know, those things have always gone on and probably always will. But the three convicted took patronage to a whole new level. Their elaborate scheme involved rating job candidates based on the clout of the legislator sponsoring them, making sure the candidates were in the pool of finalists, rigging the evaluations to justify putting them ahead of other, more qualified candidates, and falsifying documentation to “prove” they were hired according to the rules.
In return, O’Brien was treated favorably at budget time and became a center of power. The Boston Globe uncovered the details of the rigged system and presented dramatic examples of the ne’er-do-wells hired solely because they had the backing of legislative leaders. For their part, legislative leaders cemented their own powers in exchange for having done favors for members.
A generation ago, the fertile hunting ground for legislative patronage jobs was county government, but, as more functions were removed from county control, a legislator had to look elsewhere to get a pal or constituent a job. The probation department became the default employment agency. Testimony during the trial, capped by yesterday’s conviction of O’Brien and his aides, notably validates the cynicism people have about government.
But there are some troubling questions: As raised by attorney Harvey Silverglate and his assistant Daniel Schneider in Mass. Lawyers Weekly, and pointed out by Dan Kennedy in his Media Nation blog, a real question exists as to whether the U.S. Attorney should have brought the case in the first place. The two assert that this was federal over-reach, criminalizing some behaviors that, while constituting patronage at the state level, were not federal felonies. By hiring the unqualified and rigging the process, O’Brien et al were surely committing “fraud against the Commonwealth,” but shouldn’t that have been dealt with at the state level? Maybe so, but, given the state’s culture, would it have been?
The jury did a thorough and thoughtful job. Those convicted could theoretically go to the slammer for up to 20 years, but that seems unlikely. Unsavory patronage is pervasive, and, indeed, there are more than 30 so-called unindicted co-conspirators, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo. Now DeLeo and others are left hanging, with no day in court and perhaps never able to remove the stain from their reputations. They may or may not deserve to do so, but there’s little opportunity to clear their names in the court of public opinion.
Of course, if the public were less apathetic, other candidates could come forward and voters could register their disgust by voting out of office any obvious miscreants in this corrupt system. Sadly, half the members of the House and Senate are running unopposed this fall. So perhaps we have to share the blame for the condition of the political process, the questionable ethics of some who represent us, and the quality of those whom they, in turn, recommend for government jobs.
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