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Mass. Probation Commissioner O'Brien Suspended

Massachusetts Probation Commissioner John O'Brien was suspended Monday and an investigation was begun into his agency's hiring and promotion of probation officers.

Chief Justice Margaret Marshall and Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert Mulligan said in a joint statement that they were deeply concerned about published reports about management practices within the Probation Department.

They said O'Brien has been placed on administrative leave, effective immediately.

A message left at the Probation Department seeking comment from O'Brien was not immediately returned.

O'Brien's hiring practices have been the subject of front-page stories in The Boston Globe, which detailed what it said was an agency where patronage was rampant and where political contributions helped advance careers.

"We are deeply concerned with not only the proper administration of the Probation Department, but with how such reports may affect the public's perception of the integrity of all aspects of the judicial branch," the top justices wrote.

Also Monday, all seven justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court signed an order calling for "a prompt and thorough administrative inquiry into alleged improprieties with respect to the hiring and promotion of employees within the Probation Department as well as other practices and management decisions within the Probation Department."

The court appointed Paul Ware, an attorney with the Boston law firm of Goodwin Procter, to conduct the inquiry and report back to the court within 90 days.

Ware had previously been tapped by Attorney General Martha Coakley to oversee the criminal investigation into the fatal July 2006 Big Dig ceiling tunnel collapse.

The justices appointed Ronald Corbett, Executive Director of the Supreme Judicial Court and the former Deputy Commissioner of Probation, as acting administrator of the Probation Department to replace O'Brien.

The brewing storm at the Probation Department could alter the governor's race because of O'Brien's connections to independent gubernatorial candidate Timothy Cahill.

Cahill said Monday that O'Brien has supported his political career in their hometown of Quincy, but that neither influenced Cahill's decision to hire O'Brien's wife, Laurie, and one of the couple's daughters.

Two of Cahill's contenders for the governor's office, incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick and Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker both called on Coakley to investigate.

Marshall and Mulligan said the court decided to act swiftly in part to acknowledge what they called the "many dedicated employees of the Probation Department."

"We are committed to working with them and others throughout the judicial branch to ensure that the highest standards of excellence in all aspects of judicial administration will continue to be met," the justices wrote.

This program aired on May 24, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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