In a year that started with a former House Speaker under indictment, an open US Senate seat, and a governor seemingly headed to electoral defeat, the biggest political story of 2010 turned out to be the Beacon Hill probation patronage scandal. And, if past is prologue, that ongoing saga promises to continue in 2011.
Massachusetts lawmakers would like to breathe easier, now that Bay State voters have chosen not to expel them en masse. The major ethics headaches of the past three years are approaching their denouement in federal court, with former state senator Dianne Wilkerson soon to be sentenced, and ex-Speaker Sal DiMasi awaiting his trial.
But the probation scandal may yet prove to be more far-reaching — and just might trigger fundamental change on Beacon Hill.
If so, the pivot point can be dated precisely, to May 23, when the Boston Globe published the first installment of a Spotlight Team report on patronage in the state's probation department. That triggered investigations, including a federal probe that has reportedly begun issuing subpoenas for documents; most observers expect legislators and staff to eventually be deposed.
All this revealed an agency that for a decade subverted any notion of fair process in hiring and promoting employees, and instead rewarded those with recommendations from legislators — particularly lawmakers with control and influence over the probation department and its budget.
Top elected officials are trying to draw a firm circle around the probation department itself, hoping to quarantine the damage, and prevent it from tarnishing anyone else. They are emphasizing the alleged egregious wrongdoing of the commissioner, John O'Brien, who faces a disciplinary hearing next month. In addition, Speaker Robert DeLeo has proposed placing probation employees under civil-service protection, and Governor Deval Patrick has formed a probation-reform working group, in cooperation with DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray.
Meanwhile, lawmakers insist that nobody in the legislature knew of the problem, and that they are unaware of any similar corruptions in other agencies.
The systemic fraud at probation, if true, is extraordinary and unlikely to be equaled elsewhere in state government. And previous scandals, including those involving Wilkerson and DiMasi, ultimately failed to take down other state lawmakers or significantly change the overriding culture.
Conversations with legislators, staff, and those who work closely with them suggest a sense that this, too, will blow over.
That may not be realistic. Paul Ware, the attorney whose investigation for the Supreme Judicial Court resulted in a scathing, detailed report, has made clear that he was strictly precluded from pursuing the case further into the legislative side — but that he believes there is enough smoke to suspect a fire.
The US Attorney's office, Attorney General's office, and the local media are actively on that trail. DeLeo and Murray are in significant potential legal peril, as are other top current and former lawmakers. Others may find their hopes of political advancement tarnished. (For example, some say Boston Senator Jack Hart, much rumored for the open Ways and Means chairmanship, may now be a politically untenable choice due to his prominent position in Ware's report.) Lawmakers could find themselves distracted, if not overwhelmed, by the criminal investigations and continuing revelations in the press — and becoming isolated and impotent in a climate of distrust and paranoia.