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Watchdog Says Probation Dept. 'Answers To Nobody'02:45
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The head of a watchdog board rebuked the state's under-scrutiny Probation Department Tuesday, citing a lack of proper oversight for enabling claims of patronage.

"It answers to nobody," said Michael Keating, head of the Court Management Advisory Board and an attorney with the Boston law firm, Foley Hoag. "It answers to itself. It's an extraordinarily autonomous organization within the judiciary, which is isolated and insulated from any management control by the judiciary."

The Probation Department has come under fire after allegations of corruption and cronyism, which led its commissioner, John O'Brien, to be placed on administrative leave Monday.

"It answers to nobody. It answers to itself. It's an extraordinarily autonomous organization within the judiciary."-- Attorney Michael Keating

Doubts about the integrity of the department's leadership aren't new. Just last week, Keating's board concluded that management of the Probation Department was "dysfunctional."

Speaking to WBUR, Keating expanded upon his characterization and said that his survey revealed a management system that appears deliberately designed to curry favor between the Probation Department and the Legislature.

Keating explained that it's the Legislature that gave the Probation Department its current level of autonomy. An annually renewed statute, first passed in 2001, allows the commissioner sole authority to appoint, discipline and dismiss probation officers.

"So you have a situation where about 2,200 of the court system's 6,000 employees operate without any supervision by the court system," Keating said.

That same statute also stipulates that the judiciary is unable to affect the financial appropriation for the Probation Department — meaning, according to Keating, the department's financial resources are effectively unsupervised, too.

A bigger problem, however, says Keating, is that the Legislature gives the Probation Department a wide berth with an expectation that it'll get something in return.

"It's a situation which has been created, bred by the Legislature and the Probation Department to do favors for each other," Keating said. "And what they get is a place to put jobs, a place for patronage."

The key to cleaning it up, Keating says, is easy to identify.

"It's a situation which has been created, bred by the Legislature and the Probation Department to do favors for each other."

First, Keating says the Legislature needs to take away the privileges it gave to the department. "They should not provide that the commissioner of probation has the sole hiring and firing authority over probation officers," he said.

He added that funds appropriated to the department should also be freely transferable by the judiciary to other departments.

"The solution is in their hands," Keating said, referring to the Legislature, "if they have the courage to take action."

Standing in the way are the benefits Keating says the Legislature derives from the way the Probation Department is run. And there are cultural barriers, too.

"In Massachusetts, we have this culture where the Legislature thinks they can get involved freely in all the activities of the judiciary," he said. "That's a bigger stumbling block to reform than the issue of patronage."

This program aired on May 25, 2010.

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