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Investigations: Investigative Reports

All in the family

BY: Jack Sullivan and Bruce Mohl

Stephen  P. Anzalone Jr. is living proof that the state’s probation service is family friendly.

When Anzalone was appointed a probation officer in 2007, he was set to join his father, his sister, and two cousins who were already working at the agency. He also had an uncle and another cousin working elsewhere in the trial court as court officers.

It was yet another anecdotal example of how family and political ties play a prominent role in hiring decisions at probation, an agency that is ostensibly a division of the trial court but, thanks to the Legislature, operates with unusual independence.

Probation commissioner John J. O’Brien controls his own $160 million budget and can hire whomever he pleases, as long as he abides by trial court procedures. In Anzalone’s case, Robert A. Mulligan, the trial court’s chief justice for administration and management, decided those procedures were not followed and rescinded the appointment six months later. Anzalone is suing to get the job he was promised; the case will be heard by the Supreme Judicial Court this spring.

In court papers, Mulligan says he based his decision on Anzalone’s failure to fully disclose all his trial court family connections on his employment application; he also says those connections violated both the spirit and the letter of the trial court’s policy on nepotism and favoritism. But the court papers also display a hint of Mulligan’s frustration with O’Brien’s hiring practices. As Mulligan’s attorney says in an SJC brief, “[Mulligan] had ample discretion under the personnel standards to have determined, once he had learned how many relatives were already employed, that ‘enough is enough.’”

The Anzalone case is moving toward resolution at a time when the probation service -- and its nearly 2,200 jobs -- are at the center of a power struggle on Beacon Hill. Gov. Deval Patrick is pushing legislation that would remove probation from the trial court and place it within the executive branch. Court officials, including Mulligan, say they want probation to remain in the trial court although they want greater oversight over the agency. Top legislative officials declined comment.

The debate so far has focused largely on potential cost efficiencies and organizational charts, but an underlying theme is probation’s reputation as a patronage haven for the Legislature. Patrick, when he filed his probation legislation, said he was concerned about patronage at the agency, but offered no specifics.

O’Brien, a Quincy resident who earns $130,305 a year as commissioner, acknowledged in an email responding to questions from CommonWealth that he receives hiring suggestions all the time. “As in any organization, this office receives recommendations for applicants from various sources, including the Legislature and all other branches of government,” he said.

Some prominent names stand out on the probation employee roster.

  • O’Brien’s daughter Genevieve earns $45,963 as an administrative assistant in the Office of Community Corrections, a division of the probation service that the senior O’Brien ran before his appointment as commissioner. Another daughter, Brenna, worked as an intern at probation several years ago.  
  • Christine Irwin, daughter of the late Judge John Irwin, who appointed O’Brien in 1998, is a program manager for the Community Corrections office earning $61,307. Another Irwin relative, Eugene, is a regional director making $83,096 annually for the probation service’s electronic monitoring program, which uses global positioning system devices to track people on probation. O’Brien acknowledged in his email both Irwins were hired after Judge Irwin appointed him. Another Irwin daughter, Susan J. Irwin, works in the trial court as a First Assistant Clerk in Concord making $92,034;
  • Christopher J. Bulger, son of former Senate President William M. Bulger, is deputy commissioner of probation, earning $108,546 a year;
  • Ann Baddour, wife of state Sen. Stephen Baddour of  Methuen, is paid $34,517 as an associate probation officer. Her husband is vice-chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which oversees the trial court’s budget, and, as a private lawyer, represents the Massachusetts Chief Probation Officers;
  • Kerrin M. Costello is a probation officer earning $69,686 and is the wife of  Rep. Michael Costello of  Newburyport, who serves as chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, which oversees probation issues;
  • Kathleen Petrolati is the wife of Rep. Thomas M. Petrolati of Ludlow, who is the speaker pro tem. She is a regional program manager for probation’s electronic monitoring program with an annual salary of $88,059;
  • Paula T. MacDonald, a probation officer earning $50,348, is married to Franklin County Sheriff Frederick MacDonald;
  • Vincent J. Piro Jr., son of former House assistant majority leader Vincent J. Piro, earns $88,059 as an assistant chief probation officer in the Woburn court;
  • Rep. Geraldo Alicea of Charlton is on leave as a probation officer while serving in the Legislature. He sits on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security;
  • According to court filings, Stephen Anzalone's father, Joseph P. Anzalone, is a probation officer in Malden District Court making $82,079 and his sister Kathryn is on the payroll for $37,519 as an associate probation officer in Plymouth District Court. A cousin, Mary Pendergast, was an associate probation officer at the time Anzalone filed his application for a probation job and Anzalone’s cousin by marriage, Alexander Milton, is also a probation officer earning $52,446. Analone's uncle, Joseph Pendergast, is a court officer making $62,631, as is his cousin, Joseph Pendergast Jr., who makes $47,510.

Determining the political connections, if any, of those on the probation payroll is no easy task, but many inside state government believe those connections exist because of the way the Legislature has built a protective cocoon around the agency. In 1993, five years before O’Brien was appointed, the Legislature eliminated the six-year limit on the term of the probation commissioner. In 2001, the Legislature gave O’Brien the exclusive power to hire and fire within his agency, eliminating the need for him to win Mulligan’s approval for personnel decisions. More recently, the Legislature has allowed Mulligan to move funds between trial court departments to deal with budget shortfalls. There was one exception, however: probation funds could not be touched.

The Legislature has also been generous with funding for probation. According to the Court Management Advisory Committee, a group that advises the trial court on management strategy, the probation caseload was basically flat from fiscal 2003 through fiscal 2008, while the agency’s staff increased by 10 percent and its budget went up 18 percent.

The independence of the probation service and its close ties to the Legislature have had a ripple effect on power struggles within the trial court and across state government in general.

Documents at the time raised concerns about probation and the courts becoming a patronage dumping ground.Kevin Powers, Anzalone’s attorney, said in his brief to the SJC that Mulligan was barred from voiding his client’s appointment unless he acted within 14 days, but notes that Mulligan waited six months before taking action. In a footnote to the brief, Powers suggests Mulligan’s refusal to approve the Anzalone appointment was more about bad blood between Mulligan and O’Brien than anything else.  

“It is Anzalone’s understanding that defendant Mulligan failed to act on his appointment for six months because of an ongoing fight between defendant Mulligan and the Commissioner of Probation,” Powers wrote. Powers, who did not return phone calls, did not elaborate on the fight between Anzalone and Mulligan.

In 2001, when the Legislature gave O’Brien control over hiring within his agency and exempted clerk magistrates from judicial oversight, two judges took the unusual step of filing suit, calling the legislative incursion on judicial turf unconstitutional.

James M. Cronin, the former first justice in the Bristol Juvenile Court, and Robert F. Kumor Jr., the former first justice of Springfield District Court, lost their battle before the SJC, but their comments in letters and court documents at the time raised concerns about probation and the courts becoming a patronage dumping ground.

Cronin detailed a series of patronage hires by a compliant Bristol County clerk and insisted the moves by the Legislature, which reduced judicial oversight of personnel matters, would open up the probation department to the same problems.

“The legislative leadership apparently prefers the type of one-stop patronage shopping it obtained from the Bristol Juvenile Clerk, and hopes the commissioner [of probation] will be equally accommodating,” Cronin said at the time.

Readers who have information can contact Jack Sullivan at CommonWealth at jsullivan@massinc.org or call him at 617-224-1623.

           

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