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Ware: Probation ‘Fraught With Political Influence’

BOSTON — An independent review says criminal charges may be warranted over hiring practices at the state Probation Department.

The state Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday ordered administrators to fire Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and come up with a disciplinary plan for the employees involved after an independent investigation revealed widespread cases of the hiring of politically connected candidates.

“I would really describe it as a circumstance in which the tail began to wag the dog,” said Paul Ware, the independent counsel who investigated Probation, in an interview with Morning Edition Friday.

While he said there’s nothing wrong with a personnel recommendation per se, Ware said, “when the system becomes so distorted and so fraught with political influence that the decisions are effectively being made for reasons other than the qualifications of the candidates, then everybody suffers, and that was really the situation here.”

The court asked Ware to review the department after a Boston Globe investigation in May found a patronage system throughout the 2,000-employee department.

But why would Probation engage in such alleged hiring practices?

“Certainly the department was treated generously as regards (to) appropriations from the Legislature and that enabled legislative leaders or other individuals to control, to some extent, through line-item budgets, the Probation hiring,” Ware said.

“And so, in effect, the Probation office got large appropriations, got generously funded during years in which the commonwealth was obviously struggling financially and in return, the Legislature got the assurance that some reasonable percentage of positions would be designated by the Legislature.”

Ware said his charter limited his investigation to the Probation Department and he will leave the question of criminal charges for agency officials and participating lawmakers to “more qualified individuals.” The report has been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office, among others.

Ware did mention two specific recommendations for the department, beginning with appointing a new commissioner — someone “unquestionably a person of integrity and experience.” Ware also said the agency should remain in the hands of the judicial branch because Probation works so closely with judges. Gov. Deval Patrick has called for Probation to be under the control of the executive branch.

“While I respect in every way the governor’s right to make such a suggestion and to urge that that be done, I don’t think that this the time to consider a move like that,” Ware said.

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