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Mulligan: Probation undergoing change
With O’Brien’s suspension, top judge pushes for more transparency, defends past hires
June 23, 2010
The top administrator of the state's court system is urging the Legislature to give him more oversight of the probation department’s employees and finances even as he is defending some of his past hires.
Robert Mulligan, the chief justice for administration and management, said probation is already becoming more transparent in the wake of Commissioner John J. O’Brien’s suspension. The Supreme Judicial Court, responding to a Boston Globe Spotlight Team series on patronage at probation, placed O'Brien on paid leave in late May and replaced him temporarily with Ron Corbett, the top court’s executive director. The SJC also appointed Paul Ware Jr., senior trial counsel at Goodwin Proctor, as independent counsel, giving him three months to investigate the agency.
Mulligan said Corbett is working closely with officials in the Patrick administration, exploring a more data-driven approach to sentencing, and hiring people using strictly objective criteria. He noted O’Brien sidestepped formal hiring procedures by giving acting, temporary appointments to some employees, while Corbett is going by the book in the search for a new chief probation officer at New Bedford District Court.
"I intend to interview the final candidate myself," Mulligan said, indicating he never interviewed candidates proposed by O’Brien. "We're going to proceed differently going forward."
Mulligan also responded to criticism that he and other court officials were well aware of patronage problems at probation prior to the Spotlight reports and merely used the stories as cover to oust O’Brien. News reports raising concerns about patronage at the agency have appeared in various news outlets, including CommonWealthmagazine.org.
The chief justice said top court officials were aware of problems at probation but the Spotlight series put them all together and for the first time raised the issue of employees having to make political contributions to advance their careers. He said he had not been aware of that previously.
Mulligan said the SJC was able to place O’Brien on leave and appoint Ware as independent counsel so quickly – both actions were taken on a Monday, the second day of the Globe series -- because the judges had been aware the series was in the works and had been brainstorming ways to respond. He said he believed Ware was contacted by court officials before the Spotlight report appeared.
"I believe he was probably approached before the series came out," Mulligan said. “I'm confident he will do a thorough, objective investigation."
Mulligan said his office was routinely notified of new hires at probation but never knew to whom they were related or connected. "I don't get involved in reviewing every single hiring decision in the organization," he said.
Even though probation is located within the judiciary, Mulligan said current state law bars him from overturning any hiring decisions at the agency unless they violate internal procedures. Even so, he said a number of hires were flagged by aides as problematic. “We’ve questioned many of them,” he said, declining to go into specifics.
One hire he did reject was Stephen Anzalone Jr. As reported by CommonWealth in February, Mulligan rejected Anzalone’s appointment as a probation officer on the grounds he failed to disclose on his job application all his family ties within the trial court. His family ties to the court system were extensive, including four relatives working at probation and two as court officers. Anzalone is now suing Mulligan in court; his appeal is pending before the Supreme Judicial Court.
An anonymous blogger going by the name of EB3, or Ernie Boch III, on the website BlueMassGroup.com has criticized Mulligan for hiring practices that he says are no different from those of O’Brien at probation. For example, Mulligan hired Elizabeth Cerda, the wife of state Representative Peter Koutoujian, as his coordinator of intergovernmental relations. He also promoted the son-in-law of SJC Justice Margot Botsford to the position of court officer at the Dedham District Court, and then rescinded the appointment after questions were raised about it.
Mulligan said he has known Cerda for 20 years. He said she at one point worked as his law clerk. He praised her character and integrity and said she has been “immensely helpful to us” and described her as a “very substantive person” on legislation.
Told that O’Brien and his allies at probation have said many of their hires were equally qualified, Mulligan scoffed.” Some of them were not even qualified for their positions,” he said.
As for the appointment of Timothy Mahoney, Botsford’s son in law, Mulligan said he made the promotion just before a hiring freeze was implemented at the trial court in October 2008. Subsequently, he said, an anonymous letter was mailed to him and other court officials suggesting the promotion was payback for Botsford’s support for his reappointment as chief justice. The SJC voted 4-3 on Sept. 18, 2008, to reappoint Mulligan. Botsford was the fourth justice to sign the order authorizing his reappointment.
Mulligan said Mahoney was promoted on merit and the allegations contained in the anonymous letter were inaccurate, but he nevertheless rescinded the appointment on Dec. 8, 2008 because an appearance of impropriety had been raised. "The fact of the matter was he was a very good employee," Mulligan said.
Where probation should be located in state government’s organizational chart is still very much in play. Gov. Deval Patrick wants probation moved into the executive branch, while Mulligan wants it to stay in the judicial branch but with his power over the agency restored.
The Senate, in its budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, called for the creation of a panel to recommend where probation should be located. In the meantime, it voted to give Mulligan the authority to oversee hiring, firing, and promotions at the agency. It also approved a five-year term limit for the commissioner of probation and gave Mulligan the power to shift money out of probation to cover shortfalls elsewhere in the judicial branch.
The House budget contains none of the Senate provisions and top House officials have indicated they will wait for Ware’s report on probation before recommending any changes at the agency. A conference budget is due shortly.