What DeLeo and Murray should do

Why legislative leaders should act now to make the patronage scandal history
By EDITORIAL  |  December 1, 2010

DARK INNER WORKINGS The probation-patronage scandal confirms the public's worst nightmare of Beacon Hill's machinations.

So deeply ingrained is the corrupting patronage game in State House culture, that it took a Boston Globe Spotlight Team exposé to spark a long-needed clean up.

Now, the state attorney general's office and the US Department of Justice are investigating legislative interference in probation-department hiring. Judging from the looks on their faces — as captured by news photographers and television cameras — House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray are resigned to that fact.

Resigned, but obviously none too happy.

DeLeo and Murray did not invent the Beacon Hill patronage machine. It was up and running long before they assumed their leadership positions. But the reality is that allowing the machine to keep running was part of the unspoken bargain that helped DeLeo and Murray become leaders of their respective chambers.

Anyone who has been following the scandal may well ask: if the legislature's patronage racket was such an open secret, what took AG Martha Coakley, an admirable public servant, so long to swing into action? And why did a newspaper, as opposed to her office, start the ball rolling?

Surely a professional and well-run probation department is vital to public safety and key to the administration of equitable justice?

The answer is simple: nobody bucks the legislature in a meaningful way without risking retribution, often in the form of budget-based revenge.

Although it's difficult to imagine lasting or meaningful reform without federal intervention, the US attorney's office appears determined to be its usual heavy-handed self. In the months to come, expect common sense to fly out the window. If the feds can indict someone for having sent a letter, they will.

Perhaps the only state-wide elected figure who looks good in the midst of this mess is Governor Deval Patrick.

As a candidate, Patrick began talking about the need to reform the probation department years ago. And as governor he was in favor of folding the department into the executive branch to minimize legislative monkey business.

A strong argument can be made that the probation department should be under the umbrella of the court system, as it once was — before the legislature removed it to punish the courts for refusing to go along with their patronage requests.

The problem is that once the current mania for clean government passes (as it always does), the judiciary will once again find itself in the position of being the branch of state government least able to protect itself against outside administrative interference.

If DeLeo and Murray are truly sincere in their stated desire to clean up this latest public disgrace, they should jointly introduce legislation making the probation department subject to a merit-based civil-service system and giving responsibility for its operation to either the attorney general or the governor's office.

Governor Patrick no doubt would welcome the move.

Fixing the probation department now would go a long way toward restoring public confidence in legislative leadership.

Why wait for the AG and the US attorney to finish their investigations? Why wait for the possibility of indictments? The threat of nasty trials? The possibility of jail time for some?

DeLeo and Murray are not implicated in this still unfolding scandal. They have the power to put the worst behind the public, fix the situation for the greater good, and let the investigators go about cleaning up the mess of a now reformed system.

Do either DeLeo or Murray have the political imagination to join with Patrick and actually right a governmental wrong?

It would be a bold and reassuring step.

Related: State of flux, Lobbyists line up to line House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s pockets, Double-Secret Probation: 2010's biggest Boston political scandal, More more >
  Topics: The Editorial Page , Massachusetts, Therese Murray, Robert DeLeo,  More more >
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